No matter how much I love my city, it’s often hard to trace its roots. This is because unlike most historical metropolises, L.A. is constantly remaking itself. On the one hand, this creates a frequent sense of loss for those of us who call it home, as if the environments we know in the city are only temporarily here before some reset button takes them away.
On the other hand, living in a city with minimal roots to point to makes the stories of the individuals here that much more precious; the city they know breathes inside of them, rather than just through a wall or some other still landmark.
L.A. native Roger King is precisely this kind of individual. Born in South Los Angeles in 1945 “[just] three days after the Battle of Iwo Jima”, the sixty-nine year old chess and boxing coach is one of those rare Angelenos who actually knows a thing or two about L.A. through the times.
I first met Roger after spotting a flyer for a local chess club at the Cahuenga library in East Hollywood this past summer, at a time when I was deeply focused on improving my chess game. The flyer stated that the club’s organizer was a former tournament competitor, and while this made me a bit nervous at the possibility that I might not be good enough to hang with more experienced players, it made me even more excited at the prospect of talking with others about strategy, technique, and some of the different philosophies to the game; the following Thursday, I returned to Cahuenga at 4:oo PM sharp, ready for war.
To my surprise, however, upon meeting the chess club at Cahuenga it became clear that my guard-up wouldn’t be needed, or at least not at the notch I initially thought it’d be; the community of chess players at the library was a small but friendly group comprised of players of all ages ranging from toddler to senior years. To make things better, the club’s organizer, “Coach Roger”, was a friendly, welcoming club leader rather than a hard-liner, as a former competitive player might be expected to be.
“I only have two rules…” I remember him telling me as I sat down to play with my first opponent, who was a polite young lady in her early twenties named Gohar.
“No timers, and no trash-talking.”
This sounded fair enough. And I guess the rest is history, as they say.
The year was 1957 when Roger King learned how to play chess at the Boy’s Club in Hollywood, long before it became the Boys & Girls club in 1990. He was twelve years old then. While at the club he also learned boxing, bridge, billiards, and swimming. And while each pastime was a lot of fun, Roger took a particular liking to chess and boxing.
“Who knows,” he tells me, but ‘a typical boys’ competitive edge’ is probably what drove him to lace up the gloves. Similarly, something about the shape of the pieces on a chess board indicated to him that the game was a kind of royal stage for combat. Somehow, for him.
“Plus,” he adds, “my father really liked checkers.”
After the Boy’s Club, Roger kept at chess and boxing, practicing in his spare time while attending what was then Thomas Starr King Junior High School (now simply Thomas Starr King Middle School). In 1962, when Roger was a seventeen year old at John Marshall, he placed third at an all-city chess tournament. But it was easier back then, he explains: “the city was much smaller.”
By official estimates, the city of Los Angeles alone was still huge back in the sixties, numbering at over 2 million people. Today, we’re closer to 4 million. However, Roger elaborates on what he means by ‘smaller’:
“Things were much more segregated [back then]…”Even as the Beatles were coming up, the popular [white and Christian] morals from the forties and fifties were still prevalent.”
This was especially clear to Roger during his time in college.
“If you were Jewish, you couldn’t join a Catholic fraternity…If you were black, you couldn’t join a white fraternity…when you went out to a restaurant, you had to wear a jacket! And if you were a woman, forget about jeans!”
Here I can’t help but let out a laugh. While Roger explains things in a very stately manner, there’s also a blend of excitement and insistence in his voice that somehow reminds me of Steve Urkel trying to convince the audience of a scientific fact: while it all makes enough sense, the way it’s said is just unbelievable, humorous, and heartening all at once.
“But it’s true! I mean it!” he tells me.
In 1962, during his senior year at Marshall High School Roger applied to Occidental College and UCLA. He was accepted to both schools, but chose to matriculate to UCLA because of the traveling opportunities it offered.
“[While] I aced the Entrance Exam and entered [UCLA] as a geography major with a 3.5 GPA,” he explains, “I decided to change to a Spanish major because of the travel opportunities, fiestas, and [las] Señoritas.“
By then, he could also tell that the city he called home was changing.
“We started adding skyscrapers in Los Angeles in the mid to late 1960s, and there were more and more people coming each year.”
In hindsight, perhaps it was this same spirit of soul-searching that drove Roger to seek adventures outside of L.A. For this, he was more than just in luck. As a junior with a 4.0 GPA, a good track record for traveling, and a knack for languages, Roger landed an internship with –get this– the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland, where he interned for a year.
After finishing the internship and graduating from UCLA, Roger went on to work at the NSA for the next eight years, officially from 1966 – 1974. This included four years of active duty with the U.S. Air Force as a Vietnamese language interpreter, during which he traveled to serve in Okinawa, Hawaii, Panama, and even Vietnam, the last of which “…is a whole other story,” he says while shaking his head.
Despite all the research and traveling that interpreting for the NSA required, did Roger continue playing chess and boxing for fun throughout this time?
“Of course!” he tells me.
In 1968, in addition to sparring for exercise with his fellow servicemen, Roger also went on to achieve one of his greatest feats as a chess player, when he won a military tournament near Fort Ord in Monterrey, California.
After his time with the military, in 1974 Roger continued traveling and educating himself, picking up a Master’s degree in Spanish Linguistics at the Universidad de Salamanca in Spain. Following that, he spent two additional years globe-trotting, returning to L.A. in 1976.
At that point, it was clear to Roger that construction during the late 1960s was well on its way to transforming the city from a metropolis into “a megalopolis”. Or, to use his words, “a far cry from the provincial L.A. of the 1950s,” where men had to wear jackets and women couldn’t wear jeans when going out.
What’s more, Roger recalls that as the eighties approached in L.A. “there was massive immigration from Central America and Asia.” And here, I can’t help but think of my own roots to those times.
My father came to L.A. from El Salvador circa 1988, when the civil war in his country between the conservative U.S. backed government there and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) reached its eighth year. My dad must have been just about twenty-four years old around then, and when he got to L.A. it’d be about two years before he met my mom, who herself had arrived to the States from Oaxaca, Mexico circa 1984.
Naturally, I don’t have to press Roger much on what L.A. looked like by that point; I arrived to East Hollywood as a newborn in 1990, around the same time that the coach opened up an interpretation agency in the city which he still owns to this day.
In turn, unlike the preceding decades which Roger so enthusiastically has so much to tell me about, when it comes to the nineties and on, we’ve both got things to learn from one another! That is, while we remember the town differently, each of us has roots to trace, share, and reflect on together.
Roger started volunteering as a chess instructor at the Cahuenga library in 2007, where he’s shared his time and chess tips with the community ever since.
Besides playing the great game and recreational boxing, he also enjoys watching game shows, solving cross-word puzzles, and of course, a great conversation or two about his travels in L.A. and beyond!
To learn more about Roger, or to play some chess with either of us, simply stop by our club at the Cahuenga library on Thursdays from 4:00 – 5:30 pm. We promise to play nice! However, don’t be surprised if Roger wants to interest you in a good ole sparring session. Like the city and its people, even after all this time, the coach’s still got a lot of fight left in ’em.
UPDATE: Roger King passed away on April 23, 2017, after a short battle with cancer. He is survived by family, as well as many members of his boxing, chess clubs, and language classes.