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St. Louis Master: 'Diversity Is Big In Chess'


You may have known that St. Louis was the birthplace of legendary artists like Josephine Baker and famous athletes like Yogi Berra, not to mention the home of contenders for this year's World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals. But you might not be aware that the city is also considered to be the chess capital of the United States, and some might even argue the world. Not only is the World Chess Hall of Fame located here, but the nation's top college chess team is here also. Our next guest is helping to build on that tradition of top chess talent. Charles Lawton is national master of chess. That's one step below Grand Master. He grew up in St. Louis, and lives and plays chess here now. Welcome. Congratulations. Thanks for joining us.

CHARLES LAWTON: Thank you. Thank you.

MARTIN: And if you're unable to join us in person, you can follow us @TellMeMoreNPR on Twitter, and join the conversation using the hashtag, #TMMStLouis. So, Charles Lawton, how did you get into chess?

LAWTON: I saw players playing in my high school, St. Louis U High, and I went up to them and saw the game. And I was good at games. So I basically told these two people who were playing that, give me a couple of days and I could beat them at their own game.

MARTIN: That did not happen actually as I understand it?

LAWTON: No, it did not happen. After the first game, I lost badly. But being as competitive as I was, I stayed at it and played them a week later. Lost again.

MARTIN: What does it take to be great at chess?

LAWTON: It takes - like any endeavor you get into - dedication, work, studying, the usual things that you see in schools.

MARTIN: Now I don't think - I'm just hazarding a guess here - that I'm not sure that most people see chess as the most diverse sport out there or game out there. Or - the chess celebrities that I think most people can think of off the top of their heads are mostly Russian. You're African-American. Has it been kind of interesting for you to compete at this level? Are people surprised to see you show up?

LAWTON: Very. One tournament I went into, I was a third-rated player there, and this was in Alabama. And when I went to make my move, the tournament director took it back because, basically, I was up on the podium being the third-ranked player there. So I made my move again, and he took it back. And he said that I shouldn't be there because that was reserved for chess players.

MARTIN: Oh, you mean he thought you were a spectator...

LAWTON: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...And you were just bogarting your way into the tournament?

LAWTON: Exactly.


LAWTON: So I told him I was. And I sat down, my name was on the board, Charles Lawton, right there, big. And I sat down because I thought maybe it was because I was standing up, and made my move again. He called the hotel security.

MARTIN: Wow. How did that get resolved?

LAWTON: Basically, I pulled out my ID while the other players were sitting around trying to figure out what was going on. When the tournament director saw the ID, that it was me, that I was the third-ranked player there, he was a little bit embarrassed. But he did apologize, where everybody else laughed and clapped. So I ran into that a lot because during that time, basically, I was unknown as far as face. All they knew was my rating and that I was a master.

MARTIN: Has that happened since?

LAWTON: It gradually died out because nowadays, diversity is big in chess. In other words, you go to our chess center, you see Asians, Jamaican, Russians, Greek, all ethnicities, including blacks. If you look in the schools, you also see this going on right now.

MARTIN: Why do you think St. Louis has become such a hotspot for chess?

LAWTON: One is, we ended up with a benefactor that, in 2007, started creating the Chess Club and Scholastic Center. One of his things that he wanted to do was to see if chess had a benefit in schools, as far as people learning chess. Did they do better or worse than the average? And there's a study going on right now that's supposedly over four years to show that. I'm pretty sure what's going to come out of it because with chess, you get into logical thinking. In other words, if you do this, what's the reaction to doing that? And it doesn't just help you in chess, it also helps you in other things in life to predict what the outcome is going to be if you do something.

MARTIN: What is it that you love about it?

LAWTON: One, it's competitive. Two, like I said, I got into a competitive group to start, and once I got into it, it was sort of addictive. Three, it helped me in other endeavors. In other words, I went - I ended up graduating from Washington U with an engineering degree just because whatever I did with chess, I got very good at math and physics and stuff like that because you use the same type of techniques and stuff to learn chess are also applicable to other studies.

MARTIN: How has it been for you, competing at this level, having people underestimate you? Does that kind of get under your skin? No pun intended.

LAWTON: Oh, no. It's usually funny.


LAWTON: In other words, after a while - I'm so well-known now across the country - not only in this country, but I played overseas, too - that they know my name, and they know who I am. So it's no longer where I'm underestimated. In fact, it's actually the opposite. In other words, they try to figure out all the things I played just to see where my weaknesses are.

MARTIN: What is it - I know that you're a big evangelist around chess. You're really dedicated to getting other people to pick up the - first of all, is it a game or a sport? What is it? Is it a game? Is it a game or a sport? What should I call it?

LAWTON: It depends on your definition of sports because people ask me, is tiddlywinks or golf a sport? So what definition do you give as far as what is a sport?

MARTIN: Well, my husband's a golfer, so I say it's a game.

LAWTON: One definition I've heard is that when it's a one-on-one competition or a group-on-group competition, then it's a sport. If it's where you're going against a standard, like golf, then it's a game.

MARTIN: What do you think? What do you say?

LAWTON: It's a sport.

MARTIN: OK. OK. All right. OK. Well, so what's your best argument about why kids should get interested in chess?

LAWTON: One, logical thinking. Two, you get to see your opponents' ego crack after you get good at it.

MARTIN: OK, and anything else?

LAWTON: Basically, I'm happy for the support of Rex Sinquefeld because he created the Chess and Scholastic Center, and he's brought the women's and men's U.S. Championship here for the last five years. And if you've heard, we just recently had the number one, number two player in the world. In fact, Magnus Carlsen is right now playing for the world championship that starts tomorrow. And he's brought grandmasters like Hikaru Nakarmura, who's the fourth-ranked player in the world and the number one in the U.S., here to teach other kids how to play.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations. That's exciting.

LAWTON: It is a lot of fun

MARTIN: Do you have, like, T-shirts and cool, like, uniforms and swag and stuff like that? Do you have, like, stuff?

LAWTON: Unfortunately, yes.

MARTIN: Charles Lawton is a national master of chess. He was kind enough to join us from our special broadcast here today from St. Louis Public Radio. Charles Lawton, thank you so much for joining us.

LAWTON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.