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Checkmate at Brain Beach

September 01, 2002|HANK ROSENFELD

Another kind of castling is drawing players to the sands at Chess Park near the original Muscle Beach south of the Santa Monica Pier. These days Mark Rosenberg, voluntary park "concierge without a title," castles, kibbutzes and generally holds court at a new playing area with snazzy giant chess-piece sculptures and seating for 140. The 52-year-old Palms resident, who teaches the game privately and in Los Angeles Unified School District enrichment programs, was instrumental in planning the new city-funded facility, which was unveiled in 2000. His standard opening gambit: "Welcome to Brain Beach!"

What is that number "E4C6" on your sun hat?

An international algebraic notation for an opening defense move I'm famous for.

Since this is Los Angeles, let's have some Chess Park name-dropping.

Since we opened in October of 2000, I've seen Ron Howard bring his son to the park. Then there was a player called "Dick" who turned out to be Richard Riordan, [then-] mayor of L.A. Riordan can really play. There's an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor here who teaches children and calls everyone "pussycat." And some of the highest-rated children in the country come down here to play.

Is it true that Hollywood has a chess heritage?

Here's a Hollywood story. In 1933, Cecil B. DeMille was the arbiter of chess matches between [international master] Herman Steiner and Jose Raul Capablanca. Jose was the world champion from Cuba. DeMille had actors dressed up playing the life-sized pieces. Steiner had a chess club in Hollywood for 40 years. Bogart was a master there. Rumor said he hustled [chess] on Coney Island.

Were you a child prodigy?

I didn't really learn to play until I was 30. My father inspired this park, though. He was a doctor who did free dental work in the Gaza Strip. He and other L.A. dentists built a dental bus in the 1970s and took it to Gaza. To show people not to hate, you have to do something, not just talk about it.

Who are the best players in L.A.?

The Russians, the Armenians and the Filipinos. In Armenia, like in Russia, it was always cultural, knowing chess like a piece by Ravel or a Kandinsky painting. Starting in the 1960s, the Soviets sent master teachers to the Philippines.

Why don't I see women playing here?

Tradition and intimidation. There are good women players in Southern California. A few years ago, a woman won the oldest chess tournament in the world, in Hastings, England. But here, 7th-and 8th-grade girls don't want to appear smart. Like in soccer, it takes a breaking down of the old way.

Give us a weird piece of arcane chess trivia.

OK. In Israel and Russia, the king has no cross on his head. How's that?

Now I know why Bobby Fischer was such a loon. Do you agree with the cliche that chess is the mental equivalent of war?

I like to see it as performance art. Some days you are better than others, but you're in the moment. They do use chess at West Point as a training vehicle. I can see spies using it, because chess gives much insight into your personal psychology. Are you looking to counterattack? Are you aggressive? Passive? Some favor positional ideas, some players maneuver around a lot. Some are anal-retentive. Henry Kissinger was once asked to play, a game was set up with Brezhnev. But Kissinger declined. He didn't want to show how he analyzed or probed things, or give any insight into his personality. A very smart move.

Just how far does chess fanaticism go?

Do you remember when the U.S. was bombing Yugoslavia? We shut off their electricity. A few months later I was sent apologies from Belgrade because they were three months late in publishing the Chess Informant [journal], which offended chess masters worldwide. All the high-level players read it.

Why is chess a great sport?

It's inexpensive. The pieces last forever. It [is accessible to] everyone. At one time 30% of our players down here were homeless. There was a movie studio executive who kept getting beat by the grip on his set. He was very upset about this, and he came to me for lessons so he could beat him. I said, "Who is this grip? He could be a master!" We have short-order cooks in this town who are great players. It's a level playing field.

Otherwise the pieces would fall off the board.

I can see that.

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