Historic Moments: Charles Lawton, St. Louis Legend

Charles Lawton did not travel the traditional path of any of the participants in the U.S. Championship. Most had come up through some sort of coaching or training, but the St. Louis native was primarily self-taught.

Lawton, 56, grew up in “The Village” area in the Carr Square with his father, mother and three siblings. His mother voluteered in the community and his father made sure his three boys were getting a normal boyhood experience by encouraging sports. This competitive spirit would eventually be transferred to the chess board and Lawton would become a local legend.

Lawton attended St. Patrick’s elementary school and then went to St. Louis University High where he encountered two boys playing chess, a common way of initial exposure. An article written by Joe Holleman in the St. Louis Dispatch, Lawton was quoted as saying:

“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.”

Young Charles had gotten bit by the “chess bug” and had begun getting books on the subject. After initial losses, he began to improve until he finally beat his two nemeses. Prior to reaching Master level, Lawton joined the Navy and like many Black chess players who would become masters, was involved in a technical science. His craft was electrical engineering and worked on nuclear submarines. During this stint, he had one 10-month stint at sea and would become a force to be reckoned with.

Daaim Shabazz (The Chess Drum) and National Master Charles Lawton
Daaim Shabazz (The Chess Drum) and National Master Charles Lawton
Photo by Daaim Shabazz.

After leaving the Navy in 1976, he enrolled in University of Missouri-St. Louis, but had to postpone his education after taking a full-time job at a pharmaceutical company named BioMerieux Incorporated. While working at BioMerieux during the day, he took classes at night at Washington University in St. Louis where he completed his Bachelor’s in Electrical Technology. Now a 30-year veteran, he is the company’s chief engineer.

While Lawton was forced to abandon any grandiose hopes at being a chess pro, he frequented national tournaments back in the 80s and won the Missouri State Championship twice. Lawton is an inveterate attacking player and explains his evolution.

When i was starting out in tournaments I would lose any game I was not up a piece or more going into the ending so I developed an aggressive style of play that made sure I would not get to endings.

He and comrade IM Michael Brooks represented a dominant duo in much of the decade. Both participated in the 2009 U.S. Championship as “wildcard” selections.

In the aforementioned article, it is evident that “Charles” received the respect worthy of a local champion. We all know the type. It was based on this status that the organizers chose the highest rated St. Louis player at America’s premier closed 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,” stated local player Greg Williams said.

Lawton has served as a mentor to young players and he mentioned that he does so on an informal basis. During the U.S. Championship, Lawton would finish his game and then retire to the skittles area where he would play a few games of blitz and sign autographs. Such a sight is indeed refreshing and a welcome sight in a sport dominated by youth.

Local legend Charles Lawton interacting with kids. Photo by Daaim Shabazz.

Local legend Charles Lawton interacting with kids.
Photo by Daaim Shabazz.

There is at least one player at each chess club exhibiting the alturistic deeds of Lawton, but perhaps no one came put together the combination of humour, humility, generosity and strong chess as the man who gives new meaning to “The Spirit of St. Louis.” Congratulations Charles!


  1. Please send my regards to Charlie. He was a valuable member of the St. Louis University High School chess team during the time I was captain of the team. Please change the St. Nicholas reference to SLUH to be accurate.

  2. I am from St.louis.I now live in Los angeles. I never knew Charles Lawnton,. I went to McBride h.s. I still play chess at 82 years of age. I enjoyed the article. I’m surprised he was received so well at St.Louis U. high, given my experience at that school during the early 1950s. take care

    1. Dr. Simpson,

      I believe Charles teaches chess locally, but is not active as a tournament player. He was quite a talent in days gone by. I think he is a bit behind you. May have graduated twenty years after.

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