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It’s Cheers and Checkmate At This L.A. Chess Social

At a Los Angeles Chess Social event, participants take the revelry as seriously as the chess. 

By Daniel Tozier, Images: Courtesy TK

It’s just past 11 on a Tuesday night. The air in the dining room of Pasadena’s White Horse Lounge oscillates with electricity. Quick, dashing notes burst from the jazz band at the center of the room and out across the bustling floor. At each table, beside half-finished drinks, black and white chess pieces dance around their boards dodging, attacking, and capturing until, finally, checkmate. The revelry has been carrying on since 8 p.m. and, even at this late hour, it shows no signs of winding down. If it’s not already apparent, this is not your typical chess club. This is the Los Angeles Chess Social, a place for players of every level to hear some great music, have a cocktail, and, of course, play chess.

Before starting his own chess club, founder Karl Rollert drove around town visiting a handful of already established groups. What he found was disheartening. One club charged $20 for admission, provided no boards or chess pieces, and, worst of all, permitted no talking during or after the games. Unhappy with these silent and lifeless evenings, he set out to create something new.

At the time, Rollert was working at South Pasadena’s Griffins of Kinsale. With the owners’ blessing, he and a few friends began meeting in the basement once a week to play chess. The group grew in popularity, adding numbers and eventually grabbing the attention of local jazz band Chet Happens, who offered to play during games in exchange for tips. The formula was an instant success.

In the year and a half since, the Los Angeles Chess Social has expanded considerably. More than 100 players come and go throughout the night, and a lineup of several bands and musicians plays until games wrap up around 1 a.m. Locations change weekly, though the social often takes place at the White Horse Lounge and Vertical Wine Bistro. Rollert, a Pasadena local, keeps most meetings within city limits.  

Anyone is welcome to find an open board, sit down, and play. Entrance is $5 and free for members ($10 gets you a lifetime membership). Fees go toward website maintenance, new chess boards, and, occasionally, a round of drinks for the bands. Rollert can usually be found playing host. Easily spotted in his suit and bow tie, he spends most of the evening mingling with the crowd, telling jokes, and pairing off players he thinks will make for a good matchup. Moving pieces around the board between bursts of laughter and sips of beer, it’s easy to forget the stereotype of chess being stodgy and serious. All the misconceptions of this complex and ancient game disappear as the jazz band stands and begins its next song.

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