50 Years of Chess: The Santa Cruz Scene

by admin on March 23, 2021

Before I go too much farther in my chess chronicle, I should say a little bit about the chess scene in Santa Cruz, which was very lively when I moved here in 1996 and very moribund now.

When I moved here, you could play 5-minute chess any day of the week at the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company on Pacific Avenue, the heart of downtown Santa Cruz. Arguably I had played “coffeehouse chess” for years, and now I had the opportunity to play literally in a coffeehouse! Space was limited, and this was the first time I learned the term “risers.” If you have three (or more) people wanting to play at the same table, the loser of each game has to “rise” and let someone else play the next game. The winner, of course, gets to play as long as he keeps winning.

Over the years the coffee company became less tolerant of chess players, and eventually around 2000 or so we were no longer allowed to play there. However, there were other outlets. For somewhat more serious players, there was a weekly chess club that met first at the Santa Cruz Operation (SCO). That was a great place, with lots of seating and with a free soft drink machine. I think that there was a $1 fee per person to cover rental, which is unbelievably cheap for Santa Cruz.

But chess players always seem to overstay their welcome. In particular, the SCO did not approve of underage people in their facility. It wasn’t clear to me whether the teenagers did something irresponsible or whether it was company policy, but in any case either they had to go or we all had to go. No one wanted to exclude teenagers from the chess club, so we looked for a new meeting place. For a while we met at the German-American Center, which Gerhard Ringel, one of our most veteran players, was a member of. But it was considerably more expensive than the SCO had been. Although Gerhard paid for some of the increased expense himself, that wasn’t fair to him. So, after a year or so, the peripatetic chess club moved on to Borders Books. There it was the same old story. For a while we were welcome, then the hours allotted to chess club got shorter (so we had to replace our 25-minute games with 15-minute games), and then we were not welcome any more. Maybe a year or two after that, Borders itself closed. Ha! Serves them right! (By the way, SCO also had gone belly-up a couple years after driving us out. It seems to be bad karma to evict a chess club.)

After the Borders chess club closed, sometime around 2007 I would guess, there was no high-level club in town any more where you could routinely play against experts and occasionally play against masters. I enjoyed it while it lasted, but it strangely didn’t help my chess very much and possibly hurt it. I was usually one of the highest-rated players at the club, and I think that I got a little bit lazy. With a 25-minute time control you didn’t have time to sit and really puzzle out a position. Then when I would play in a tournament somewhere else with a 2-hour time control, I would still play too superficially and get into trouble.

In the mid-2000s another playing opportunity arose. For five years, Eric Fingal organized an invitational tournament called the Santa Cruz Cup, with regular tournament time controls. I will write more about these tournaments when I get to those years in my chronology, but they were hard-fought and I had lots of good games against Juande Perea, Jeff Mallett, Ilan Benjamin, Yves Tan, and others. I won two and a half of the cups, Juande won one and a half, and Ilan won one.

Another curious thing about the Santa Cruz chess scene was that there were a lot of ghosts — some literal, some metaphorical. What I mean is that there were lots of masters who didn’t play much any more, or at least who didn’t play in the chess club. I heard names like Steve Brandwein and Elliott Winslow but never saw the people who were attached to the names. (I did meet Elliott eventually.) The biggest ghost of all was grandmaster James Tarjan, who moved to town to work as a librarian and stayed strictly away from the chess scene until he retired and started playing again. The only contact he had with Santa Cruz chess was to donate some of his old trophies for use in Gjon Feinstein’s scholastic chess tournaments.

Gjon is in a special category all of his own. He was sort of a “ghost” because he left the competitive chess scene at just about the same time I arrived. I think I played exactly one game against him at the SCO chess club. However, he stayed very active as a chess coach, which I believe has been his main source of income for at least 20 years. If you think that being a freelance writer is a hard way to earn a living, just try being a chess coach! So I have the utmost respect for what Gjon has been able to do.

After the chess scene dried up, Gjon and I continued to get together fairly regularly, often with one or two other friends or students, usually to do some analysis with a few blitz games thrown in. Gjon is a tremendous 5-minute player, and would win about 90 percent of our games. I admire very much his ability to formulate plans, his extremely broad and always well-considered opening repertoire, and his ability to play solid, mistake-free chess when he is down to a second or less per move.

Finally, I have to mention one of my favorite things about chess in Santa Cruz: the Aptos Library Chess Club. I ran this club without interruptions (not even for summer vacation!) from 1996 to 2020, when the pandemic brought it to a halt. But interestingly, I did not start the club. The founder was Steve Kangas, another Santa Cruz “ghost” who left town shortly before I arrived. He moved to Las Vegas and then met a strange and untimely end that you can read about here.

When I arrived in the summer of 1996, one of the first things I did was go to the Volunteer Center of Santa Cruz to see if I could get involved in any regular volunteer opportunities. I knew from experience that the time to start volunteering is right after you move to a new place, when your schedule is not yet full of other commitments. I filled out an application form to list my interests and experience, and the woman at the volunteer center noticed that I was a chess player. Oh! She said. The Aptos library has a chess club for kids, but needs someone to run it.

Seriously, how often does it happen that there is an existing chess club, which has a place to meet and all the necessary chess equipment, but is missing an organizer? I’ll tell you how often: once in the history of the universe. That was in Aptos in 1996. So I cheerfully signed up, and it has been a bright spot in my life ever since.

Very few of the kids in the Aptos club have gotten interested in playing rated tournaments, but that’s not the point. The kids want to hang out and play with their friends. I do think that they like to have a certain amount of gentle chess instruction. I have to thank my former assistant, Ronee Curry, for encouraging me to do that. She saw me playing at the Borders club with adults, and knew that I was a serious player, and she asked me why I didn’t teach the kids at the Aptos library chess club. I didn’t really have a good answer; I just hadn’t done it and didn’t really know where to start.

At Ronee’s urging, I started teaching a lesson for about 15 minutes in the middle of chess club, and it worked well. First I let the kids play on their own for 30 minutes, which is usually enough time for them to finish one or two games (they play fast!). After half an hour the volume usually starts to increase — if you’ve worked with kids, you know what I mean — and that’s a good time to switch to something else. A short, 15-minute lesson is a good way to get everyone focused again. And I think it sends a message, without me having to say anything, that while chess is fun, there is some skill to it and the skill is something you can learn. It gives the club just a little bit of seriousness.

But not too serious! After the lesson (usually one position from Tactics Time) the kids go back to playing for the last 15 minutes of the club. On the infrequent occasions when I have a regular participant who wants more serious instruction, I usually put their parents in touch with Gjon, because he knows better what to do with them and because chess instruction is his career.

I should also mention that my current assistant (before the pandemic, anyway) is Shan Crockett, and he has been my best assistant ever. He has come reliably every week for more than ten years, and gives good pointers and feedback to the kids. He has no ambitions to do the instruction himself, but he is good at suggesting things that would be good to talk about (such as, how do you checkmate with K+Q versus K again?). As a retired psychologist, he occasionally has really good insights into what is going on with kids who are having problems. Not that we ever have kids with problems.

So that’s chess in Santa Cruz. I miss the old days, but don’t we all?

By the way, I have deliberately not written here about chess “over the hill” in San Jose or San Francisco, for example, Mike Splane’s chess parties or the Mechanics Institute. I’ve written about those many times before, but I just wanted to concentrate on Santa Cruz County in this post.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Danyul October 9, 2021 at 7:18 pm

Hello, I just moved to Santa Cruz from LA and was wondering about the chess scene here. I am a weak master and was hoping to find some regular in person competition. Do you have any suggestions?


admin October 10, 2021 at 4:21 pm

Hi Danyul,
You’re in luck. I still meet occasionally with Gjon Feinstein and Eric Montany, who both fit into the same category of weak masters (although Gjon is probably a level above us, especially in speed chess). I think that Gjon would be thrilled to have a new person in the loop, and I would too! Let’s talk more by e-mail. You can find my e-mail address at http://danamackenzie.com/contact.


paul gratz April 11, 2023 at 9:42 am

Hi! If possible, please direct me to active youth chess clubs or camps in the santa cruz area. Sincerely, Paul Gratz 831-419-6441


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