Hunched over a concrete chess table at the west end of MacArthur Park, Jeff Stone advanced his pawn with the concentration of a brain surgeon.
A drunk staggering by did not distract him. The shouting from a raucous dice game wasn't enough. Even a nearby fight over a soured drug deal could not interrupt his quest for a checkmate.
"Most of the time you're so into the game, you don't realize what's going on around you," Stone said between matches on a recent Sunday. "Hours will pass and you won't even realize it. You're just totally lost inside your own world of chess."
At 40, slightly rotund, with thinning hair and a sharp gaze, Jeff Stone is one of the masters of MacArthur Park. For the last two decades, he has toted his chess set to this frequently unsavory inner-city setting in search of a good game and high-minded camaraderie.
In the process, Stone and the dozens of other players who gather here each weekend have turned the park's 32-acre expanse of green lawns and palm trees into an unlikely stage for possibly the finest chess competition in Los Angeles.
On any given weekend, as many as half a dozen master-level chess players might be found amid the evangelists, street-people, gamblers and families who regularly inhabit the park. As masters, a title gained by scoring victories at officially sanctioned chess tournaments, they are ranked among the top 700 chess players in the country, according to U.S. Chess Federation officials.
Looking somewhat motley and rumpled themselves, the aficionados descend on the park's concrete chess tables in the early morning and play their characteristic style of timed, five-minute chess until it is too dark to see. Each brings his own vinyl board, set of pieces, digital clock and a colorful philosophy as to what makes chess so much more than just a game.
"In chess, you're looking for the best," Stone said. "And the best is the truth."
There's Carlos Garcia, for instance, a 32-year-old Salvadoran refugee from Canoga Park who regularly rides a bus to the park at 7th and Alvarado streets after an uninspiring week of flipping burgers at a San Fernando Valley food stand.
Flight From Homeland
A former master who recently slipped a few points to the expert level, Garcia fled his country after the Salvadoran government closed the university where he had been studying architecture.
Now, lamenting what he sees as his failures, he finds succor in the abstract logic of the chess board. "There's only 32 little pieces, but you can fix them up in the way you want to," Garcia said. "There's not much you can do about the real world."
Then, there's 39-year-old Gene Venable, also a few points shy of master level, who is a self-described loner and former hippie from Van Nuys.
A devotee of Nietzsche and a punk-rock connoisseur, Venable spent eight years, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, on disability for extreme feelings of alienation and anxiety. Recently, after a stint as an editor at Gambling Times newsmagazine, he began work as a copy editor for a local publisher of academic journals.
"For a long time I was stuck in jobs I was overqualified for," he said. "Now if I come and play chess, I'm respected. People will know I'm somebody who is intelligent and creative. That's something I wasn't getting before."
And Jeff Stone, himself, a customer service manager for an electronics firm, has in the last 20 years risen from rank beginner to become one of the strongest players in the park.
A reconnaissance paratrooper during the Vietnam War, Stone studies chess for about four hours a day, usually drawing from one of the 500 texts in his home library.
"Chess is a translation of your psychology, basically," he said. "I tend to look deeper into things than most people do. My mind is the kind of mind that doesn't accept a no-answer solution."
Along with another dozen or so highly skilled regulars, they form the core of a diverse and often eccentric group of chess enthusiasts who defy the common perception of once-elegant MacArthur Park, which in recent years has come to be better known for drugs and violence than highbrow recreation.
"Those guys are great. They're part of the fixture there. They're part of the family of MacArthur Park," said Al Nodal, director of exhibitions at the adjacent Otis Art Institute of the Parsons School of Design. "Obviously, the chess players are a good thing to have there."
Capt. Bayan Lewis of the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart division, which keeps six patrolmen near the park at peak hours, agreed that the chess players help stabilize the surrounding environment.
"They raise the aesthetic quality of the park by being there and people being able to see them," Lewis said. "Using the park in the way it was designed is an absolutely positive aspect."
More than just their presence, however, it is the quality of competition that distinguishes the chess players.
Playing five-minute, or even one-minute matches, they move quickly and intuitively, instantly visualizing complicated patterns and interrelationships. Their understanding of the game is so sophisticated that the loss of one piece might cause them to abandon a match even after only a few moves, certain they could never win.
Frequently, neophytes approach the veterans for a game, only to be told, sometimes not so politely, that it would not be worth the trouble.
"A master should be able to take the average person on the block who says he knows how to play chess, play blindfolded, and win every time," said Vince McCambridge, technical director for the U.S. Chess Federation, which has 60,000 members nationwide. "They're experienced players. They know what they're doing."
Some, such as 79-year-old Rogie Rogosin, began accumulating that experience long ago.
A nimble man with a coarse white beard, Rogosin has been a regular at the park more than 40 years. In his early years, he attained a master ranking, reaching the finals of a top-rated national chess tournament in the 1940s. Although his game has since waned, he recently tied for first place at the National Senior Class B Championship in San Diego.
"The attraction is the sociability, the personalities, the different people that are around," said Rogosin, a retired psychologist living in Hollywood. "Even with the sordid aspects of the park, it's still an overwhelming attraction in terms of a place and the people who are there."
Rogosin, like the other regulars, cites the park's setting as one reason for playing there. The companionship and camaraderie of ongoing friendships keep them coming back.
Above all, they say, there is a stability to playing there that far overshadows the fleeting world of chess clubs or sporadic tournaments. For decades chess players have made MacArthur Park their home and few today believe that the tradition will ebb.
"The whole setting is a portrayal of life itself," Rogosin said. "It's a sampling of the human condition."