The King of Chess in St. Louis

| 0 | Chess Players

At first glance, Charles Lawton displays nothing extraordinary: deliberate gait, quiet voice, slight smile.

"Call me Charles," he says on introduction.

But around St. Louis chess boards, he is "The Man."

Lawton, 56, of University City, is the only local player invited to the U.S. Chess Championship, which begins today in St. Louis. He is the second-highest-ranked player in Missouri and has reached the level of national master.

When he recently walked unexpectedly into the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center, it did not take long for every player to pause, watch him for a few moments, then pay respects:

"Hey, Charles." "How's it goin', Charles?" "Are you playing tonight, Charles?"

And it did not take long for the deliberate, quiet Lawton to become the confident, charming Lawton — making jokes at his own expense and breaking into a laugh that is part chuckle, part cackle and completely contagious.

"I think I'm the hospitality player," he said with a grin. "I was invited so everyone could be guaranteed at least one win in the tournament."

True, Lawton is the lowest-ranked player in this competition. But don't think for a blink Lawton is aiming for anything less than victory.

"Every chess player is driven by ego and thinks they can win any match against any opponent," Lawton said. "If you don't believe in yourself, why should anyone else?"

Lawton grew up in the Carr Square area near downtown St. Louis, known as "The Village." His father held two jobs; his mother raised four children and volunteered in the community.
He attended St. Patrick's elementary school and then went to St. Louis University High, where he accidentally ran into chess while killing time in the school pool hall.

"I saw two guys playing: Jim McLaughlin and Doug McClintock. I didn't know how to play, but I'd always been good at board games. So I said, 'I can beat you guys.' They showed me the moves and gave me two weeks to practice. After two weeks, I went back and played them — and they kicked my butt."

Instead of retreating, Lawton charged. He read chess strategy books and played his two schoolmates regularly. Soon, it took them longer to win. Then, he started beating them.

From then on, chess became Lawton's passion.

"I was playing so much and reading about it so much that my dad, more than once, would tell me to go outside with my two younger brothers and hit the baseball. When I'd get in trouble, I'd get my chess board taken away as punishment."

After high school, Lawton joined the Navy. He worked on nuclear submarines — and his chess skills. "I played a lot of chess in the Navy. In one 12-month period, I was at sea for 10 months. There was a whole lot of time to play," he said.

Lawton's curiosity also spurred him to pick up other hobbies: sky diving, hang gliding and tennis. "If people want to know what kind of person I am, I tell them that I've truly enjoyed being on ships that sink and jumping out of perfectly good airplanes."

When not sitting at a board, Lawton collects comic books and reads science-fiction novels. He also enjoys cooking. "If I find some dish I like, then I learn how to cook it myself," he explained matter-of-factly.

After his discharge from the Navy in 1976, Lawton went to the University of Missouri-St. Louis for two years before being hired at BioMerieux Inc., a pharmaceutical company in Hazelwood, in 1979. He took night classes at Washington University and earned a bachelor's degree in electrical technology. He now is the company's primary engineer.

Lawton is the only black player in this tournament; there is only one black grandmaster, Maurice Ashley, in the United States. "It takes a lot of money to travel ... and play in all the tournaments. A lot of people can't afford that," Lawton said.

Lawton said his pursuit of an engineering career realistically ended his chance of becoming a national force in chess.

"There were two ways I could go: Get a job or play chess for a living. I decided to become an engineer."

That's not to say Lawton forgot the game. He played in local tournaments and was at his peak in 1990, when he competed in the U.S. Open in Las Vegas. There, he scored his greatest victory: A draw — against Gata Kamsky.

For the uninitiated, Kamsky (who is playing here this week) is the top U.S. player and a world-title contender.

"He knew, and everyone knew, he was lost in that game," Lawton said. "I offered him a draw, and he quickly took it."

Local player Greg Williams, 59, has played Lawton a number of times over the years. He is pleased Lawton is playing in this week's tournament.

"Charles has been such a big influence on chess players in St. Louis. He's been the force in town for such a long time," Williams said.

A few years ago, Lawton served as the guru-mentor to young players who met to play at the St. Louis Bread Company in the Delmar Loop.

"I love watching young players develop," he said. "The game teaches them how to plan, how to think logically, how to persevere. And in chess, you have to be willing to lose to get better. You don't get better by just playing people you can beat all the time.

"That's a lot like the way life works," Lawton said.

Finally, when asked whether he will remind Kamsky this week of their 1990 match, some of that chess player ego Lawton mentioned made an appearance.

"I won't have to remind him," Lawton said with quiet pride. "He'll remember it, as soon as he sees me."

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