Andrew Becker hovered near the chess tables in Santa Monica for hours, itching to play, but uncertain of the protocol.
The 16-year-old -- visiting from suburban Philadelphia -- was hard to beat at home, at the ornate chess table in the Beckers’ family room, where he plays his father, Steve, and younger brother, Eric.
But here, the unexpected mix of strangers -- scruffy homeless guys, soft-spoken elderly immigrants, bricklayers and schoolteachers, the castoffs and the cultured -- “made him kind of shy,” his mother, Lisa, told me as we watched.
Then someone called “checkmate,” and a player left. Andrew slid into the seat and asked for a game. He won a few, lost a few, and listened intently as a grizzled player known as “Down Low,” who had just beaten him, explained the moves Andrew should have made.
“Amazing,” said his mother. And she wasn’t talking about the chess. She was shocked that with a dozen games going around them, she never heard an insult or a raised voice.
“I saw the rules on the bulletin board, but I can’t believe they all follow it. There’s no drinking, no smoking , no cursing . . .You’d never see this in Philadelphia.”
The tiny International Chess Park, in the shadow of the Santa Monica Pier, wasn’t always so decorous. Ten years ago, the area “was pretty rough and tumble,” recalled Mark Rosenberg, a teacher from Palms who helped expand and spruce it up.
In 2000, a $600,000 city grant paid for new tables -- some with cutouts to accommodate wheelchairs -- umbrellas, landscaping and a display of man-sized chess pieces. Rosenberg helped persuade officials to shut down a nearby liquor store, then enlisted fellow Vietnam vets to run off lingering troublemakers.
On Sunday, I sat with Rosenberg -- now 58 and recovering from heart transplant surgery -- for a world tour of the regulars. “That guy’s from Greece, he’s from Serbia, he’s an X-ray tech from Mexico . . .” He scanned the tables and ticked off homelands of the guys he recognized: “Chile, Poland, Mexico, Israel, Russia, El Salvador, Tibet . . .”
Not to mention Santa Monica and South Los Angeles.
I met trucker Eddie Foster, who drives down from Santa Clarita to play software engineer Mark Duckworth. Their game drew a boisterous crowd; Duckworth is a ranked chess master and one of the best players to frequent the park.
A few tables away, there was no audience for the game between the retired lawyer in the straw hat and the grubby young man whose possessions bulged from a backpack and plastic trash bags piled on a bench beside him. They played silently for an hour. The lawyer won, they rose, shook hands without speaking and left.
“Here, it doesn’t matter if you have money or where you live or what you do,” Rosenberg told me. “You don’t have to speak the same language. It’s a level playing field . . . No excuses. No bad cards. No bum roll of the dice.
“All that matters is your skill and how you conduct yourself. You’re civilized, you’re regular, you’re playing chess.”
Some, like John Washington, 57, come because the game takes them outside themselves. He learned to play at 8, on a battered board with coins standing in for missing pieces. At 10, he was carrying his board around the local college campus, looking for opponents. As a young man, he saw chess legend Bobby Fischer play.
Now, the former electronics tech is struggling to make a living, displaced by the sour economy. “Chess engages your mind, makes you think about life philosophically,” he said. “It’s recreation in the best sense of the word.”
Some are looking for a challenge, or an antidote for loneliness.
Ronald Quintana, 30, picked up the game two years ago after coming here from El Salvador. “I was curious, so I bought some books and began studying. I come here to try to keep up with the game, to see how far I can go. It’s a kind of discipline I like. It gives me something to do with my mind.”
When he lost, he stood up and thanked his opponent in Spanish, then stuffed his chess books in a plastic grocery bag and headed for the bus.
I’ve probably walked by the tables a hundred times, on walks down the boardwalk at Santa Monica beach. That’s the value of seeing something through a tourist’s eyes -- the familiar looks new.
There are other places in L.A. where chess lovers congregate. Russians play for hours in West Hollywood’s Plummer Park, engaging in silent, high-stakes matches. African Americans play at Magic Johnson’s Starbucks in Westchester, with lots of trash talk and camaraderie.
But nowhere is the crowd so eclectic, the vibe so pure that a homeless drug addict can take a game from a Harvard-trained mathematician and no one blinks.
And there’s something else -- teaching is part of the ethos.
Sonny Rogers, 67, of Santa Monica didn’t take up the game until he retired.
Thirty years ago, he used to watch his co-workers play chess at lunch, but he was too intimidated to try.
Six months ago, he began dropping by the chess park. At first, he just watched.
“I enjoyed the different attitudes of the people, hearing their stories, watching them enjoy themselves,” he said. “Every now and then, I get up the nerve to sit down and play a game, then six moves in, it’s over.”
But he doesn’t mind losing. Here, winning isn’t the point. It’s about sitting down and playing together, learning new lessons and listening to someone else’s story.
It’s an L.A. story writ in sand, sea and 64 squares of a faded chessboard.