Police shut down chess games on Market Street
Tuesday Sep 17, 2013 6:00 PM PT
It may finally be “checkmate” for the chess players of Market Street.
For more than 30 years, chess games have been a staple in the Mid-Market neighborhood. But earlier this month, the San Francisco Police Department confiscated the playing equipment, chairs and tables where dozens of people, mostly homeless, would gather every day to play between Fifth and Sixth streets.
Police said regular chess players aren’t the problem. They said the area has become a hotbed for illegal gambling and drug use.
“It’s turned into a big public nuisance,” said Capt. Michael Redmond, contending 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 Monday afternoon, the only sign of street chess that could be found was at the feet of Marvin Boykins, 57. Across from his latex chess board, 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, one of the original homeless street chess players who charges people a dollar or two to play. “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 from millionaires to people who have been in jail for decades.
“They’re being mean for no reason,” Torres Jr., 42, said about the police. “To me, it’s a scapegoat.”
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 help work out a plan for chess in the future — but that may involve convincing 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.
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