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Late Night at Tang's
The Secret City on latimes.com

Features column: This 24-hour donut shop in Silverlake hosts chess games through sunrise. And that's just the beginning of the Weirdness

Six men sit around a hard molded plastic table near a large window in a 24-hour donut shop. Two of the men play chess, because that is what men do here, all night long, until the sky turns from black to gray to a morning blue. The other four men comment on the action: "Take the horse!" one man says. "Oh!" and "Whoooh!" two exclaim. And when the game nears conclusion, one roars, "It's coming!" then, "Check!" and, inevitably, "Checkmate!"

This is a scene that repeats itself over and over again most nights of the week, but especially on weekends, at Tang's Donut, a blocky little concrete building on the busy corner of Sunset Boulevard and Fountain Avenue in Silverlake.

Tang's anchors a non-descript, stereotypical Southern California strip-mall. From the outside, the donut shop could be a bail bondsman's headquarters, or the front office of a self-storage facility. Three neon signs hang in Tang's windows, but only one is activated, and it gets a lot of work at this business, which closes only on rare occasions. That sign spells out, in pink, simply "Open."

Indoors, Tang's seats 20 at five tables. Donuts sell for 55 cents - 'fancies,' such as crullers and custards, go for 30 cents more. Croissants, sandwiches, sodas, juices, horchatas, Orange Bang and ice cream cones are also on the menu. The store has a trio of arcade games and some two- and four-bit vending machines that serve up Christina Aguilera stickers and pre-shelled peanuts.

Jenny Tang is the joint's co-owner. She and her husband and brother have run the place for 15 years. The Bobby Fischer-heads have been coming here as long as she can remember. "One time," Tang says, "a guy stopped by. He said, 'Can we play chess here?' We said, 'OK.' He kept bringing in players."

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At 11:30 p.m. on the penultimate eve of the second millennium, 23 men and absolutely no women are packed into Tang's. Four chess matches are in progress, two of them clock-timed "speed chess." Another pair plays backgammon. Almost everybody else watches, even taking outdoor smoke breaks pressed up against the windows. Occasionally, a coffee is ordered, and more consistently, an acoustic guitar is passed around from customer to customer. A surprising number of the participants have nimble fingers and sweet voices.

The twentysomething man who brought the guitar says he's been coming to Tang's for six months now, regularly making the trek from his home in Whittier. He gives his name as "Eddie Van Halen," though later another player addresses him as "Ruben."

"I had heard about this place," he says. "They get a lot of the strongest players for some reason. (It's a) very obscure place for very good chess."

A man who gives his name as "John" is hailed by a couple of the other regulars as being one of the top players at Tang's. He says he's been playing here for six years.

"This is the strongest (competition) in L.A.," John says. "Every time I come here, somebody is playing. It's always been a chess hangout."

Over a four-hour stretch, John plays only one game, and wins rather quickly. A few other men turn down his offers to play. John says a bad cold has kept him from being in Las Vegas this week to defend his two-time championship in a national chess tournament.

Probably bored, and certainly sick, John puts his head down on a Tang's table and goes to sleep at 1:30 a.m. He wakes up six hours later and orders a coffee.

"It's a time-consuming game, a time-consuming recreation," John had said 10 hours earlier.

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A sign posted behind the cash register reads, "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone." Considering the motley post-midnight crowd that congregates here - a mix of night owls, club-goers, homeless people and assorted fried- and glazed-dough junkies - it's hard to imagine that right being invoked.

During the pre-New Year's Eve overnight, for example, an often-incoherent man wearing high-top sneakers way too large for his feet sat down and devoured some instant soup. Pall Mall cigarettes dropped, one by one, out of the back pocket of his jacket and onto the floor. Noodles dangled down to his chin.

Later, another man arrived wearing a long overcoat, flip-flops and a derby hat. His thick black mustache was shaped like the side-view of a granite table. He stomped, stammered, swore and sang for half an hour. A pony-tailed regular wearing madras shorts successfully warned the man not to open the bottle of booze he had just flashed. That same regular later told a woman - one of only three females to sit down over a 12-hour period - that she shouldn't spend so much time staring at the demonstration loop of a video game. "This is not a cartoon," he told her. "It has no story."

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At 6:15 a.m., a driver delivers eight copies of the Sunday Los Angeles Times. Around this time, the first of the sunrise crowd begin to arrive, mostly seniors coming for a coffee and conversation. One is an elderly woman with the cracked, lined face of a long-dry riverbed. By this time, at long last, most of the chess players have gone home. Two, including Ruben from Whittier, are still playing.

A full half-day earlier, an older man sat down with his coffee next to a newcomer to the late-night action at Tang's. Having observed the place for some time the newcomer asked his tablemate if he played chess. "No," the man said to his bewildered-looking questioner.

The older man finished his coffee, then stood up and moved to put his Styrofoam coffee cup in the trash bin. He turned around to face the newcomer and said, "This place takes a long time to get adjusted to."