Another Hollywood Chess Club

by NM Andy Sacks

At the time of this writing, there is reported to be a movie in production based on the early life of one Adragon De Mello, the true story of a purported intellectual child prodigy who graduated from college at the age of 11. The director, Gavin Hood, is coming off a huge international success with "Tsotsi," a film which won a number of prestigious awards, including the coveted Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of 2005.

The story of the young "genius" is a far from happy one, replete with bizarre and grisly twists. The boy was, from the age of about three, pushed toward intellectual growth and achievement by his father, Agustin, often by the most Draconian of methods. Yes, the boy responded by earning an Associates degree with highest honors in 1987 from a California community college (Cabrillo College, in Santa Cruz, when the boy was ten); yes, he graduated only a year later with a degree in computational mathematics from UC Santa Cruz, thus becoming the youngest college graduate in the history of the United States-but at a price nearly incalculable both to him and his family.

It is a tale, among other niceties, of a lengthy police stand-off, a SWAT team, several gunshots, a trial, prison time-and all in the family. It is Greek tragedy in 20th century California. It was the subject of a Morley Safer segment on "60 Minutes" in 1987, when the road looked promising. However, it would now be more appropriate subject matter for Sophocles. Or, it seems, Gavin Hood.

So what has all this to do with the history of California chess? Plenty, although director Hood may very well not be aware of it.

For about three years in the early 1970s, before young Adragon was born in '77, Agustin Eastwood De Mello (and he liked to tell you his full name) hosted a chess club in his own residence in Hollywood. Whether or not he knew he was continuing a local tradition is a secret that died with him in 2003. Herman Steiner had first run his chess group out of a clubhouse on his own property some 35 years before, and Lena Grumette would do the same beginning not five years later than Mr. De Mello closed his club to the public, presumably sold the house, and moved up north.

The Hollywood Chess Club, as it was known, was under publicized, not too well attended, yet continued in its existence and closed apparently only because of Mr. De Mello's relocation. There were no dues to members or fees for guests, very few tournaments or formal play of any sort, and a rather generous allotment of coffee, snacks, and the like for attendees. The distinct impression given was that this was in no way a money-making venture.

Then what was the genesis of the notion to start and then maintain the club? Was the motive pure altruism for local players displayed by a class B player (the host's rating was generally about 1650) who studied, loved, and wished to promote the game? Was it to fill a void in the area because of a dearth of clubs nearby?

Neither, apparently. First, Mr. De Mello showed no inclination to play himself or spectate games in progress, and under questioning revealed a surprising lack of familiarity with chess history or culture. Second, the area was replete with chess venues, from the Herman Steiner Club not far to the west, to quite a number of Hollywood and West Hollywood coffeehouses, parks, and even donut shops nearby where chess players customarily assembled and knew they could always find a game.

Then what was it? Perhaps it will be helpful in answering that question to furnish a number of details regarding both Mr. Mello's characteristic topics of conversation and the appointments on his walls, tables, and other furnishings.

Our amiable proprietor, as a rule, invited quests, one by one, to take a tour of the downstairs rooms. He pointed out diplomas, certificates, and other mementos, all of his, and his alone, each marking an achievement, whether academic, athletic, or purely intellectual (he was a Mensa member, for example). He would quote to you, apropos of nothing you could readily imagine, "a certified IQ," which he was tested at, of astronomical degree.

And artwork. All the paintings and sculptures and suchlike were of his hand. Just some things he tossed off in his spare time, although of course some of his "best work" was no longer on exhibition in his home, for he had rather reluctantly sold it to collectors. Oh well. Such is the price of genius.

And poetry.

But there was the rub, to paraphrase Hamlet. I was on the tour when the topic of his poetic efforts came up. I told him that I would be pleased to read a couple since I was an English major, just finishing my Bachelors degree and planning to pursue a Ph.D. in literature at UCLA.

He was unfazed. I would be the perfect audience for it. Boy, would I be impressed.

I was presented with two or three short poems to review, as he went back to the playing area. I looked them over. I decided, heroically, as I fancied it, that when I went into the other room, I would be polite. I was, and used phrases like "very interesting," and then asked him about his college career. He gladly and enthusiastically took me into a hall and pointed out a Doctoral degree from a university I had never heard of and mentioned something about "correspondence." (Of course, these were the days before online higher degrees; correspondence courses were then roughly the equivalent.)

Need more be said? Agustin Eastwood De Mello was a study in attempted overachievement, self-promotion, and conceit. I do not know how many people were actually taken in by his methods, but I strongly suspect that a number of teachers at both Cabrillo College and UC Santa Cruz were not among them.

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