Chess under attack in Bay Area

Market Street in San Francisco. Photo by cormac70.

Players on San Francisco’s Market Street.
Photo by cormac70 (flickr).

Many major cities around the world have their chess watering holes. The U.S. is replete with these cultural icons. In New York, there is Washington Square Park; in Los Angeles, there is Venice Beach; in Chicago there is North Avenue Beach; in Washington, DC there is Dupont Circle; in Atlanta there is Woodruff Park; in Boston there is Harvard Square. Until recently, San Francisco on Market near Mason Street (by the BART station) was the chess spot.

Chris Torres, who runs the chessmusings blog, told The Chess Drum that city officials of San Francisco is proceeding to ban chess activities in the downtown area. According to reports, chess players have been at the location for nearly 30 years and like most of the places above had become a part of the surrounding city culture. Some of these chess spots are even mentioned in tourist guides.

Apparently there had been some complaints to the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) about disruptions from the chess players. There were stories of fighting and in one video an angry person said, “let’s shoot this (expletives shouted)”. Here is an excerpt from a SF Weekly article,

SFPD had received several complaints from citizens about players’ conduct — fighting, drinking, and some outstanding warrants, according to Lt. Lyn Tomioka, a police department spokeswoman.

The warrants and also the stay-away orders — apparently some chess players had been warned to keep away from area businesses and area merchants, including the artists who peddle their wares on Market Street near the chess games — were the biggest problems. The organizers of the chess matches were asked to move their act a block down the way to the 1000 block of Market Street, Tomioka said, but sometime between then and now the games fell apart and are today gone.

It appears the police action was a step in a confluence of factors leading to the games’ demise. Soon after the chess players were told to move, organizer Hector Torres landed in the hospital, according to Bob Offer-Westort, the Coalition on Homelessness’s Civil Rights Organizer. Without Torres, nobody bothered to set up the tables from their storage home at 66 Turk Street, and the games died out. (See article)

John Powell
A disgruntled John Powell.
Photo by Trey Bundy.
Chris Torres raised the question of whether it was the chess players or the urban environment causing some of the disturbances. Despite assertions that these incidents are isolated, the group has apparently been forced from the area. Police were recorded as saying there had been gang activity. Players such as Hector Torres and John Powell had been two players to help keep this tradition going, but their past-time has been threatened.

This case is not unprecedented. Back in 2002, chess players in Chicago had the exact same case when the chess tables were moved from the famous Harper Court mall in Hyde Park. It was a famous location and chess was a spectacle in the area. A few local businesses complained about crime in the area and that chess players were not patronizing the businesses. They added that some of the customers were scared away from the area because chess attracted some unsavory observers. The chess community launched a big fight, but the chess tables had been sold. After some time an agreement was reached to allow players to set up folding tables every Saturday, but the activity soon died since the tables were not available 24-7. (See article)

Torres wrote a letter to San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom. In it he says,

With funding for various organizations that help the homeless population being hit hard by the financial meltdown, I feel it is irresponsible if not mean-spirited for the city of San Francisco to take away one of the few possibilities left for free and legal entertainment. Furthermore, for a city that entices tourists to come on the basis of its many cultural opportunities, it does not seem fitting for San Francisco to be shutting down harmless attractions such as chess. (See article)

There are a number of issues here. One may view this through the lens of race or of class. Many of the men are in economic straits and are of “minority” ethnic groups. Proprietors may say that the chess group hurts business because it attracts a homeless element that scares away shoppers who prefer not to be harassed. There has not been an official statement released from the city. In a city that parades itself as a diverse Mecca, this development will certainly be a blot on the history of the city.

Update: Players in the Bay Area are still being batted around with another case pending.


Market Street Chess Games Shut Down
Chess Players take it to the Street


  1. NOOOOOO!!!!
    Here I am about to visit San Francisco tomorrow for the first time in my life! I knew about this spot via YouTube videos and word of mouth. After 30+ years the tables are yanked, just as I was about to get there! >: – (
    This is not cool…

  2. Daaim – So why do you think the chess at Washington Square Park and Harvard Square (Au Bon Pain) have been able to survive? The irony is that I’ve seen some CRAZY people camped out on Market St who had absolutely nothing to do with the chess players.

  3. I’m thinking that the location may be in a commercial district of some sort. In Washington Square Park, it’s in an isolated place and Harvard Square may not have the same unsavory elements that we saw in the video. When I was in Harvard Square a couple years ago, I did see some rough-looking guys, but they were not cussing, fighting and talking about shooting somebody.

  4. Dear Dr. Shabazz: I am writing a novel set in San Francisco
    in the late 1990s and early 2000 and am including a section about playing
    chess on Market Street. Do you know where I can find out the history of this.
    I’m from the Bay Area and I remember something about it initially being a
    program set up for the homeless, but I could be wrong. I am an avid chess
    player and hope to get my details right in my book. I’d appreciate any help
    you could give in pointing me to some information on the history of this
    … Thank you. […]

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