Celebrity Sightings in the SoCal Chess World

by NM Andy Sacks

It is well-documented that the original Herman Steiner Chess Club, then known as the Hollywood Chess Group and headquartered in a private clubhouse adjoining the Steiner residence, was a magnet for movie stars, in great part due to the charming and gregarious Steiner himself. Bogart and Bacall, Charles Boyer, and Jose Ferrer were among the cinematic luminaries who frequented the club. Less regular, but perhaps no less eager visitors included Western movie star Zachary Scott and James Arness, of "Gunsmoke" fame.

But what is not well known at all is that the club in its later incarnations, in various areas of Los Angeles, still had appeal to the entertainment set long after The Man himself died prematurely and shockingly in 1955. When the club was located in West Hollywood, on Beverly Blvd., in the early and mid 1960s, for example, regulars included William Windom, respected stage, screen, and television actor; as well as Bill Cowley, TV writer with credits ranging from "The Bob Cummings Show" and "The Real McCoys" in the late '50s, through "Leave It to Beaver," "Dennis the Menace," and many other television favorites through that decade.

Of course, it was Jacqueline Piatigorsky, along with her world-renowned cellist husband, Gregor, who was running the Steiner Club in those days, and their two Piatigorsky Cups (1963 and 1966) brought out additional celebrity guests, some of whom are surprising since they were not, in the press, noted for their personal chess interest or play. Gordon Barrett, longtime editor of the Southern California staple Terrachess, and frequent tournament director and official, relates that Frank Sinatra was not only an avid player and chess fan, but visited the First Cup and left with an armful of recent Terrachess editions which he informed Gordon he was very eager to pore over. Other notables who visited either one or both of the Cups included Edward G. Robinson, Henry Fonda, Ray Bolger, and Richard Boone (star of the "Have Gun, Will Travel" television series). Among the glamorous ladies of the screen who made a Cup appearance were Joan Blondell and Rhonda Fleming.

A related side note, if it can be called such, regarding distinguished visitors to the Cups involves musical connections of Gregor. The world of the piano, from the highly serious to the highly comic, was represented by tournament attendees Van Cliburn and Victor Borge. Also, Eugene Ormandy, legendary conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and internationally renowned conductor Leopold Stokowski were both one-time visitors.

In the 1970s more than one local Master gave lessons to more than one entertainment star, but sighting the stars at local tournaments is a different story. IM Kim Commons, for example, gave some lessons to Mel Brooks, but although Brooks loves and respects the game and its players, and has incorporated chess playing scenes in more than one of his movies, his being noticed at any local club or tournament has escaped my research. Peter Falk, however, not only used chess scenes and themes in some of his "Columbo" episodes, but devoted an entire 1973 entry, entitled "The Most Dangerous Match," to a chessic and murderous confrontation between an American and Russian champion. (The timing of the airing of the episode, following hard upon Fischer's World Championship battle with Spassky in '72, is of course no mere coincidence.) Falk, a great lover of our game, has been spotted as avid spectator at the Santa Monica-based American Open in more than one annual go-round.

Erik Estrada, of television ("CHIPS") and later movie fame, is perhaps to be congratulated more highly than some other stars who have been attacked by the chess bug. He has played in several USCF rated tournaments, maintaining a rating in the region of 1400. His most active tournament years coincided with his most prominent TV exposure, so he little doubt must have successfully combated distractions while competing.

Although this survey obviously does not profess or attempt to cover all celebrity sightings in our local chess world, both before and after the Steiner years, it is irresistible not to close without mentioning a very little-known sighting I was party to at the 1970 American Open. While perusing the wallboards on the second day of play, I noticed the name Joni Mitchell, unrated, playing in the lowest section. She had lost her first three games. I arrived early at the board where she was scheduled to play her fourth-round game, chess lesson business card in hand and ready to place it strategically at the table. Lo and behold, two such cards were already there! Word must have got around before I made my own discovery. But another discovery was perhaps even more disconcerting, after I did in fact have the nerve to place my card and return to the table about an hour after the start of play. She had apparently had enough after the three consecutive losses; she had dropped out of the tournament without approaching the board for round four.

Ah! Such is life in and around Hollywood. They are not all storybook endings.

Andy Sacks


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