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Playing chess with the masters on Market Street


It’s not often that a 93-year-old, a trapeze artist, a kid from the Sunnydale projects, and a DJ from a gentlemen’s club can find something in common. But if you’ve ever been to Fifth and Market in downtown San Francisco, you know that the intersection is one place where this was possible. That’s where people of all walks of life have been playing chess since the 1980s.

But last week the San Francisco Police Department confiscated chairs, chessboards, and game pieces from the area and shut down all competition. According to the police and local business owners, the chess playing wasn’t a problem – but it attracted problematic behaviors like illicit drug use, illegal street barbeques, gambling, and other crime. So, for now the cops are holding the street chess scene in check, but whether or not it’s check-mate is still to be determined.

Challenging the masters

The Mechanic’s Institute is the oldest chess club in the nation. I am a chess enthusiast, but it’s been quite awhile since he last played. So I went out to rekindle my spirit for the game by talking with the city’s chess-obsessed, both on the streets and in the Mechanics’ club.

There are ten chess games running out here at the corner of Market Street and Mason. It doesn’t take a chess master to see who the regulars are.

I’m watching a Latino guy in a wheelchair destroy a college kid. He’s showing him how he’s losing on the chessboard, and he’s right. That blocked bishop is useless. But that’s easy to say from up here. When you are sitting down, it’s a whole different chess game.

The competition is stiff, the five-minute-a-side speed format unforgiving and the game completely absorbing. That’s what draws people out here to play, but they also eat, smoke, socialize and gamble.

I’ve been spotted – or fished as they like to say here. It’s normally $5 a game, but the man in the wheelchair thinks I am an easy catch, so he reels me in for a dollar game. Before I can sit down, I have to pay John Powell. He’s in charge out here.

“So each individual player gives me one dollar for one hour,” says Powell. “However many games you can get in that hour that’s up to you.” Powell learned how to play chess hanging around the tables. Now he comes everyday to make a living. “Well yeah, I do sustain myself in modest … very modest means, you know, because right now chess is a luxury. The way we do it out here is a luxury.”

There’s nothing luxurious about these games. The tables and plastic chairs are worn, the stretch of street is dominated by empty storefronts and strip clubs, and the players range from quirky to rag-tag. But even so, people of all kinds come to play chess here.

“I have affluent people from Pacific Heights sit down and play out here for hours,” says Powell. “I’ve had people from Sunnydale projects or people from the Tenderloin sit down and play for hour. It’s eclectic. It’s a melting pot.”

I’m about to join that melting pot. I give Powell a dollar and he gives me a warning. Apparently my opponent is one of the strongest players on the street. His name is Jorge Lopez. “I’ve seen him run something he calls the Great Wall of China,” Powell warns. “That’s where the first seven or eight moves are just pawns.”

To win out here I’ll have to contend with the Great Wall of China, not to mention everything else happening on the street. But as soon as I start playing, I get sucked in. Even though, it’s pretty clear, I don’t stand a chance.

Before I know it, we’ve played six games and I’ve lost every one. For the last hour the only thing that has mattered in the entire world is this chessboard. That kind of focus makes real life problems fade away, and the guys out here on the street have seen their fair share of real-life problems. Powell says the regulars come out for a community and a game that helps them stay sane. “Chess is something that not only affluent, educated people play, but everyone play.”

Street players who want to test out their skills walk a few blocks down Market to 57 Post Street – the Mechanics’ Chess Club. Tuesday night is tournament night. And when I arrive, Club Director John Donaldson, is resetting a player’s clock.

Donaldson is the John Powell of the Mechanics’ club – he organizes tournaments, promotes the club and maintains order. When the clock is set, he leads me in to the tournament room.

Inside, the air is filled with the smell of sweat and the nerve-rattling sound of 30 ticking game clocks. Players of all ages and backgrounds are battling in games that can last hours.

Donaldson points out the strongest player in the room, a 15-year-old, competing in a separate tournament for masters. The boy is Daniel Naroditsky. He was the World Youth Chess Champion in 2007, and earlier this year he became the youngest player in history to publish a book on chess: Mastering Positional Chess.

He’s not the only character playing tonight. In the center of the room I notice the same guy who beat me on the street, Jorge Lopez. The only thing missing is his dangling cigarette. “He was like the king of Fifth and Powell,” Donaldson says of Lopez, “and he came from over there to play in our tournament and he’s leading it now 5-0.”

Just like on the street, a diverse crowd comes to Mechanics’ to play chess. Donaldson estimates that there are 14 different languages from the 60 players – from Mongolian to Slovak to Tagalag to Armenian to Persian.

But there is a gap in diversity when it comes to gender. Carol Knopf is one of only two women competing tonight. She’s a trapeze artist who started playing chess as an overworked graduate student. “It was like late at night at home,” she says “and I found chess.com on the Internet and I thought, ‘Wow, I just go on and there is an actual person on the other side somewhere in the world and you are playing with them.’”

Carl Woebcke has had a fraught relationship with the game, “My father was a sadist and he was a bad winner, and I vowed to destroy him over the chessboard and that’s why I got good. But it was bad motivation and that’s why I dropped out.”

Woebcke was the high school chess champion of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 50 years ago. Woebcke says it worries him to see kids studying the game and taking lessons at such an early age. “Enjoyment is the issue. Sometimes I get up in the middle of the game and look around the room is filled with unhappy faces. I don’t know what the hell these people are doing here unless they have nothing else to do. I'm doing other things: I play the trombone; I'm a professional astrologer; I'm meditating.”

At the end of the night a handful of people have gathered to watch Jorge Lopez as they do so often on the street. Donaldson says he has a ton of respect for the street players. He’s shocked when I tell him they’ve had to move their games from their long-time home at the 5th and Market BART station. “Is that what, like senator Newsom's like, clean up the streets business? I don’t see those guys shooting up or defecating on the street.”

They just play chess. And they’ll keep playing chess. Donaldson says, no matter where the street players have to move, the doors to Mechanics’ will always be open.

This story originally aired on November 10, 2010.