Randy Dahlgren

Randy Dahlgren

Kings, coffee rule Houston A&W

Tucked behind the counter at Houston's A&W is a well-used chessboard and set of player pieces—a legacy of avid chess fan John Van Barneveld.

After three calls of “check” Dennis Tate’s king was looking a little lost.

Across the table, Randy Dahlgren bites his glasses and thinks about his next move. Fellow chess player Paul Sahota looks on without a word.


It’s one game in hundreds played by four or five regulars at the Houston A&W—a tradition that started some 15 years ago.

“I think we’d have credit old John with starting chess here,” says Dahlgren, referring to the late John Van Barneveld, who used to play at least two games a day.

“Put it this way—there was always a 10 o’clock and three o’clock coffee break in my life,” Dahlgren said.

Two years since Van Barneveld passed, his well-worn chess board and pieces are still the ones tucked behind the A&W counter.

Asked who’s the now top player in the crowd, Paul Sahota gave a strategic answer.

“Everybody,” he said, smiling.

Sahota, who started a year and a half ago, says most games last a half hour or so.

But if you’re not careful, they can be over a lot quicker than that.

The day before, Tate said Dahlgren bested him in just four moves.

“If you’re sleeping, he’ll get ya in three moves,” he said.

“He’ll test you all the time.”

Dahlgren says while a quick opener works now and again, every game is different.

“You can win a couple times like that, but sooner or later you’re teaching him your moves,” he said.

Key to any good chess player, Tate said, is thinking a few moves ahead.

That makes it a real mental test, he added, especially at the bustling A&W, and it can show.

“You go home and you forget the milk you were supposed to get,” he said, laughing.