The Latest Street Menace–Chess

NOTES BY NORSE:  The suppression of sidewalk chess in San Francisco is a mirror example of what is being done in Santa Cruz–removal by edict of public assembly on the sidewalks though the behavior is innocent (indeed positive), traditional, and serves not only “homeless” people but the community as well.  The only people complaining (and its not clear whether any real presentation of complaints versus commendations has been made) are some merchants.
Ditto with Santa Cruz.   Performers, vendors, artists, political tablers–indeed anyone who wants to sit down on the broad Santa Cruz sidewalks (and don’t even  mention anyone who wants to peaceful, even silently sparechange)–already face an absurdly contracted space, high fines for sitting outside the designated areas, and huge fines for doing so (not to mention the threat of ail for repeated offenses).   The aggressors here are the same group of self-entitled gentrification maestros and economically-anxious merchants who are attempting to sanitize business districts throughout the country.
Liberal on the outside, homeless-ophobic and streetlife-hostile underneath, places like New Leaf Market, Coffee Roasting Company, Verve–to mention only a few–are banning backpacks and homeless-looking people inside and (in New Leaf’s case) supporting their removal even from the public sidewalks outside.  Streetlife is considered to be a “draw” or–in the current crypto-fascist language–“an enabling” or “welcoming” aspect to the sidewalk and so needs to be either regimented or removed entirely.  Ironically this “clean up” campaign threatens the vibrancy and color that actually draws tourists to the overpriced Pacific Avenue with its skyrocketing rents & knickknack shops.
Simply wailing the business blues isn’t enough in Santa Cruz (and SF), so merchants, cops, cranky conservatives, and paranoid residents hook up to generate the mythical “Public Safety” menace.  In Santa Cruz this takes the virulent and retrograde Drug War shape with politically resurgent groups like Take Back Santa Cruz, the Green Team, and the new Needle-Free Zone fear-mongers beating the drums for attacks on anyone who looks homeless (See ).  Deny them services; deny them space; criminalize them with absurd laws, and then use that criminal status to drive them away.
In Santa Cruz it will also become difficult if not impossible to play chess on the sidewalk without a permit.  Try and do it in 12 square feet and see.   Protests continue against these spirit-suppressing laws next Sunday (See and related articles at ).

SFPD Shuts Down Sidewalk Chess Games

Photo: goosmurf/Flickr
Well, this is a pathetic development in the War on Fun: The SFPD has confiscated all the game tables, chairs, and chess boards that have been used for at least three decades for sidewalk chess games on Market Street near Fifth. The claim is that “illegal activity” has spiked in the last six months, but this kind of sounds like bullshit given that we used to live in this neighborhood, and the entire five-block radius around those chess games has basically never not been a hotbed of illegal activity.
Says police Capt. Michael Redmond to the Chron, “It’s turned into a big public nuisance. I think maybe it’s a disguise for some other things that are going on.”
Oh, for god’s sake. It’s just a bunch of elderly, mostly homeless dudes playing chess!! Whatever else is going on around them, or whatever pills they may be taking on their non-chess-playing time, has little or nothing to do with the fact that they’re all just out their passing the time in a perfectly peaceful way, sacrificing pawns and taking bishops and rooks and shit!!
Sidebar: We gather that women passing by the daily games were frequently subjected to harassment, but that is another matter.
Our guess is that the row of chess-playing dudes runs counter to the image that the upcoming new tenants across the street, in what will become Market Street Place, the vertical mall formerly called CityPlace. And even though that is only barely under construction and not near opening, they want to get a head start on spiffing things up for the neighboring businesses that will reap the benefits of the retail gentrification to come.
They have their work cut out for them on Sixth Street. Baby steps.

Endgame: S.F. police shut down sidewalk chess

Neal J. Riley Updated 11:32 pm, Tuesday, September 17, 2013
      Marvin Boykins, sitting on Market Street between Fifth and Sixth, is the last sign of street chess in downtown San Francisco. Boykins, 57, learned to play chess when he was 7 years old. Photo: Lacy Atkins, The Chronicle


Street chess, that institution of young, old, rich and poor mentally duking it out over a checkered board in the open air, thrives downtown in nearly every big city of America – except, now, San Francisco.

For more than 30 years, chess games have been a staple near Fifth and Market streets, but earlier this month, the San Francisco Police Department confiscated the playing equipment, chairs and tables from where dozens of people, mostly homeless, would gather every day to play.
Police said that regular chess players weren’t the problem but that the area had become a hotbed for illegal gambling and drug use.
“It’s turned into a big public nuisance,” said Capt. Michael Redmond, contending that complaints from nearby businesses and arrests for sale and possession of narcotics have increased over the past six months. “I think maybe it’s a disguise for some other things that are going on.”
On Tuesday afternoon, the only sign of street chess was at the feet of Marvin Boykins, 57. Across from his latex chessboard, a friend moved chess pieces at the command of a smartphone computer game set at the grandmaster level, which Boykins refused to listen to after it warned him that he’d made a bad move.
“I’ve been playing since I was 7 or 8 years old,” said Boykins, who has been playing at the spot for decades. “Chess is a true San Francisco tradition.”
His friend, Hector Torres Jr., said chess saved him from a gambling addiction when he moved to San Francisco from Las Vegas more than 20 years ago. He said the chess games are a discrimination-free zone that has welcomed everyone including San Francisco Giants players, millionaires and people who have been in prison for decades.
“They’re being mean for no reason,” Torres Jr., 42, said about the police. “To me, it’s a scapegoat.”

Decades of history

Pinpointing exactly how the games began on Mid-Market is difficult, but what is clear is that they have been a fixture since at least the early 1980s.
The people supplying the tables, and the rules for play, changed periodically, but the basic premise was always the same: A steady core of chess devotees, many of them homeless, sat at the tables all day, and pretty much anyone who wanted to play could take a seat.
Sometimes the winner won $1, other times it was just a straight fee to play. At one time in the early 2000s the players who ran the tables charged 50 cents for three games. Boykins charges $2 for people to rent one of his boards.
The tables were sometimes supplied by avid players with homes and sometimes by homeless people – one penniless man in the mid-2000s dragged them there every morning from his storage place south of Market Street.
San Francisco resident Vivian Imperiale, walking down Market Street on Tuesday, said she saw police officers telling chess players a few weeks ago to get rid of their equipment.

Businesses relieved

“I was walking out here and I was thinking ‘how charming,’ although I think there’s money involved – it’s probably not all squeaky clean,” she said. “It seemed innocent.”
But employees at several nearby businesses said they were relieved the tables are gone.
“It’s an excuse for illegal activity – period,” said Dimitri Madrid, manager at Beauty Supply and Hair Salon, which has sent four letters to Mayor Ed Lee complaining about drug and alcohol use, violence and barbecuing that has taken place by the tables.
Now that the tables and crowds are gone, Madrid says he no longer sees people walking by with their purses clutched tightly in their arms, or just crossing to the other side of the street.
“It’s like night and day,” he said. “Sales have been up.”
At CeX, an electronic entertainment exchange, people have come in and asked where the chess went, said Ryan K., a store manager who didn’t want to give his last name.
“Since it’s been gone, it’s been a lot quieter,” he said, adding that he thought that was an improvement.

Not the last move

Ryan said police had reached out to businesses, asking if the chess tables were creating problems. He said drug use was commonplace and customers were calling to say they weren’t coming back to the store.
“They said, ‘We didn’t want to come here because it’s too dangerous,’ ” Ryan said.
Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said the police were wrong to take chess away.
“Having activities for folks to do is a positive thing,” she said. “We have elderly people who are very isolated, and this is a great way for them to be out in the community.”
Redmond said the players’ property will eventually be released back to them and he hopes to work out a plan for chess in the future – but that may involve persuading a business to pay for a permit so games can be played on the sidewalk.
“I’m optimistic that something is going to work out,” Boykins said.
Neal J. Riley is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter @realdealneal