The Mother of All Chess Practical Jokes

by NM Andy Sacks

"If there was one event that held first place in the annals of surreal happenings and which clearly defined the 1960s coffee house ideal, it was the great absurd chess match between Ted Jester and Master Muns of Xanadu."

     --Art Kunkin, Publisher, Los Angeles Free Press

It is well known that the history of chess boasts many humorous anecdotes-some genuine, some spurious, some somewhere in between-usually involving rather simplistic practical jokes, hidden identity ploys, and the like. Some involve the greatest of champions.

There is, for example, the oft recounted tale of then-current World Champion Emanuel Lasker finding himself unrecognized in a small town's chess club, a blustering player who said he was known as "The Lasker of the Club," and odds given, first to Lasker, and then to the other, all before identity was revealed. Then there is the player who supposed duped Lasker and Capablanca by playing a game of correspondence chess simultaneously with each, one as White, one as Black, and simply repeating the moves of the other Grandmaster, so as to defeat one, in what turned out to be identical games.

And there are numerous others. But there is none so remarkably elaborate, so conscientiously detailed in both its planning and execution, and so "cinematic" as the showdown one-game match (actually played on the outskirts of Hollywood) between Ted Jester and "Master Muns." And it is as genuine as coin of the realm.

Lionel Rolfe, participant-historian of the Los Angeles literary scene and coffeehouse culture in the late 1950s through the '60s, noted in his very readable Literary L.A. regarding the nonpareil Ted Jester, "What's in a name?" Rolfe and his fellows had come across Jester at the Xanadu, probably the most authentic and truly intellectual of the Hollywood area coffeehouses of that period, and later to be scene of the great match. But many local chessplayers had the dubious privilege of meeting Ted about a year or two before that, in late 1961.

Jester frequented one or two chess clubs and a few rated tournaments in the L.A. area before assaulting the burgeoning local coffeehouse scene. The Herman Steiner Chess Club, in West Hollywood, was the cream of the local clubs: probably the most members and certainly the grandest tradition. There was at that time a Steiner Juniors section of the club, open to players under 20 or 21 years of age (there were no absolute, written guidelines). Most of the young enthusiasts, all boys, ranged in age from about 13 to 17.

Into this group, with verbal bravado and quick, awkward, jerky steps and mannerisms, leapt the 19- or 20-year-old Jester at one of its first weekly meetings. He introduced himself as an Expert who had just moved to the area and who would deign to join the group, and maybe we could learn something from him. He certainly talked a good chess game, and seemed to play well enough that Expert was credible to our callowness, so we listened. And listened.

Jester seemed to have been paid by the word. He never shut up, and his main themes were himself in general and his chess skills and accomplishments. But if he was paid in any way, it must have been poorly indeed. He looked as if he might have lived on the streets. His person was among the most off-putting imaginable: ever unwashed, unkempt, raggedy at all extremes, with a mouth full of rancid teeth that appeared to have recently been exhumed during an archeological dig.

And nervous and jumpy enough to make you wince in wonder. Constant motion as well as chatter. And thin as a rail, incessantly smoking. Now, this was '61, mind you, and we were just kids, to boot. It was several years before the explosion of pot smoking and pill popping of the young masses. In retrospect, he was the prototypical speed freak, so obviously so that he could have been the affliction's poster boy. But we knew not. Still, a verifiable clinical diagnosis of any type was not required for us to realize that he was far gone and every parent's nightmare.

But we were not wholly without judgment or resources. Chess ratings were easily accessible in the magazine we all subscribed to. Jester was 1900, or thereabouts, not the 2100+ he avowed. When we discovered that, we did not confront him with the news, but another large chink was opened in his deteriorating armor. Of course, to be about 19 and play about 1900 was plenty good in those days, and only a couple of us were that proficient, so he was not without value to us, in spite of his cartoonish and disturbing characteristics.

Somewhere around this time Jester discovered a few local coffeehouses and began to haunt them. Of course, the '60s coffeehouse was a natural for him: a lot of talk, a lot of chess, informal as could be, and accepting of almost anyone. Not to mention that you could hang out there for hours and spend nothing, or next to it.

As fate would have it, one of his prime targets beginning in late 1962 was the Xanadu. The regulars there very soon learned what the young chess players had learned-but they learned more, and more quickly. They were adults, and quite an impressive number of them adults with intelligence and discrimination. Jester became an extreme annoyance right away.

Revenge was to be swift and sure. Since Jester's ad nauseam hobbyhorse at the coffeehouse was his towering chess prowess, it was determined to hit him where it would most hurt. Rolfe writes that no one person claims credit for the grand conception, but that a group of regulars came up with the plan communally. Jester was going to be put in his place by an astoundingly elaborate scenario in which many would collaborate and participate.

Jester was asked if he had ever heard tell of "Master Muns," a top international chess star who had retired from serious competition some years back after his shock and sadness at causing a heart attack to a Master chessplaying friend who had lost one too many games to Muns. Jester admitted he had never heard of him. That, however, was only natural. There was no such person, but the appellation was to be applied to one Walden "Monty" Muns, a Xanadu habitué and, like Rolfe, L.A. Free Press Editor Art Kunkin, and other estimable regulars, a man who despised pseudo-intellectualism and pretence.

Jester quickly and enthusiastically agreed to a one-game match with Master Muns at the coffeehouse if they could persuade the now-reclusive chess celebrity to come out of his self-imposed retirement. The match was soon set up for about a week later.

Now, Monty Muns was an interesting and multi-faceted man, but he knew chess like the layperson knows nuclear physics. In the interim before the big match, he was taught the rudimentary moves, but more especially and thoroughly the standard chess notation, so that he could physically play chess moves accurately when directed, in written form in some clandestine manner. (The moves would actually be conceived in another room by David Conwit, a strong Expert about 200 points Jester's superior, in consultation with two other local Experts, just for good measure.)

When the night came, the scene had been set with the greatest attention to detail and in the best traditions of Hollywood hyperbole. Klieg lights had been set up to catch the action for a fictitious international audience; "reporters" armed with note pads and/or cameras scurried around; phony telegrams from as far away and exotic as the Soviet Union, Nairobi, and Srinagar adorned the walls, proclaiming "The Match of the Century" and welcoming back their hero; flashbulbs as well as champagne bottles popped as the crowd grew large and rather boisterous as the start of the game approached. As the now-deceased Muns himself writes in an as yet unpublished book-length manuscript, to which he had assigned the working title Loose Change and Promises: The California Coffee-House Characters of the 1960s, it was "sham and champagne," a "tour de force of Beat theatre."

As the moment approached, Lionel Rolfe's words describe the entrances of the principals: "When Jester walked in, he was roundly ignored. Right behind him came Master Muns in a trench coat and scarf. He was led to an imposing throne next to the oversize chess set in the corner. A bevy of beautiful women danced attendance on him."

As play began, Muns would lean back regally in his chair, then lean forward making his moves with deliberation and flourish. What Jester did not know, and never discerned during play, was that while leaning back and rising slightly in grandiose gesture, Muns would peer over the heads of the audience members in back of his opponent to read a large flash card prompting him to his next move. (Both Jester's fierce concentration born of considerable ego stake in the game's result, along with the scene's general confusion prevented his discovering the ruse throughout play.)

For the few actual chess cognoscenti in attendance, there was a tense period after "Master" Muns misread a card, or at least made a move "The King" was most certainly not being commanded to play. He ended up losing a minor piece for insufficient compensation. However, order was restored as the genuine Experts outplayed Jester, and the "Match of the Century" concluded with Jester's two mournful words, "You win."

Rolfe relates how the frenzy later dissipated and was replaced by a growing empathy for the forlorn Jester, who had been thoroughly humiliated. Several of the denizens took him to a nearby 24-hour Norm's for coffee, and broke down and told him what had actually happened. Except Jester was Jester. By the time they had arrived back at the Xanadu, he was saying that he had figured it out in progress, then later that he had known before the start of the game, and by process and progress of rationalization, even later that he had found out about the scheme that morning and was wise all along and just playing along for camaraderie and effect.

The next weekend, at the legendary Fifth Estate coffeehouse on Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood, where Kunkin and his crew were hammering out the first issues of the L.A. Free Press in the basement day and night, Jester showed up. The word on the match was well out by then and we were awaiting his arrival and speculating as to the tack he would now take. In character, he pooh-poohed the entirety, held firmly that he knew it all in advance, and it was all no big deal. Let's move on.

But within two weeks he had apparently disappeared from the area. No chess club or coffeehouse sightings. Several months went by. There was again speculation, this time on his whereabouts. From almost the first, there had been rumors of his living somewhere in the Santa Barbara area and/or Morro Bay. There had been references to Jester's living on the beach, living in a cave, and other fantastic accounts. (Or were they fantastic?)

His subsequent reappearance and the form it took could perhaps have been divined, but only by those most skilled in psychology-or, more like, psychiatry. Appeared on the scene some eight months after his Xanadu debacle a Ted Jester who was no longer "Ted Jester." He was now Cyril Jasmine III. His customary attire was vastly changed and somewhat improved, if you didn't look too closely. He had adopted the Bohemian look, and quite appropriately, mind you, for he claimed now to be a novelist working on something "important."

He remained in the area in this incarnation not very long, maybe six or eight months, and his profile was blessedly lower. Then he wordlessly disappeared for perhaps the last time. Monty Muns died in a car accident in the mid-nineties. The Xanadu has been only a fond memory for decades now. But when the three converged on a certain memorable night in 1963, in the holy land of Hollywood, a rather bizarre trinity was created, a virtual miracle was performed, and one life was "taken," later to be resurrected though transmogrified.

And no, this story is not apocryphal.

Andy Sacks 2008

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