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After almost four decades, Market Street chess games are taking a break

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Marvin Boykins
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • 57-year-old Marvin Boykins, above, sits on a folding chair on the sidewalk between 5th and 6th streets on Market Street, waiting for police to show up and return his folding tables which were confiscated after police broke up the chess players that have lined the sidewalk in that area for over two decades.
In the late 1970s, Marvin Boykins and his cousin began to argue during a game of chess at the Mechanics’ Institute Library and Chess Room. Told that such behavior was not tolerated at the high-minded club, they were asked to leave.

They ended up on nearby Market Street. And as their tempers cooled, Boykins unpacked his chess set on a cement slab and they continued to play. So began Market Street chess, a tradition that has lived on for decades in varying forms and locations.

The tradition ended last month, when San Francisco police confiscated the chess sets, tables and chairs set up on Market Street between Fifth and Sixth streets after giving Boykins and other players advance warning. The crackdown was prompted by increasing complaints from businesses about drug dealing, theft and gambling.

Problems began in December and only worsened as the number of tables grew to eight or nine, police Capt. Michael Redmond said. The area became a hot spot for sales of marijuana and crack cocaine. In August alone, Redmond said, there were 120 calls for service related to the problems associated with the chess games.

Boykins agrees that the games attracted an unwelcome byproduct, but says it wasn’t the players themselves — only a criminal element that sprung up around them. Since the crackdown, Boykins, 57, has taken a break from the game he fell in love with 50 years ago.

At age 7, Boykins lived in Sunnydale public housing and visited the nearby Boys & Girls Club. The director noticed that Boykins wasn’t getting along with the other kids, so he brought him into the office where people were playing chess. Boykins was hooked instantly. After reading a chess book he started beating kids twice his age, who started calling him “Professor.”

“It became my joy,” Boykins said of the game, which dates back to sixth-century India.

Boykins, who set up the Market Street chess tables for decades with religious devotion, charges usage fees of $1 per person for an hour of play. But if someone wanted to take him on, his fee would rise to $5 and up. He said the rates are less expensive than those charged for games in New York’s Washington Square Park.

“I’m here to provide a service; that’s my byline,” Boykins said one afternoon last week. On that day, he was sitting on a collapsible metal chair by a tree in the mid-Market Street area, only without any chess boards in sight. “I’m willing to take the hiatus for a while.”

Talks about working something out are ongoing. San Francisco Beautiful has started a $10,000 fundraising campaign to install permanent chess tables just off Market Street in the nearby U.N. Plaza, a public space the nonprofit organization was already eyeing for a rehab.

SF Beautiful Executive Director Kearstin Krehbiel said chess is “critical to our city” and one of those unique cultural elements that makes San Francisco a special place, likening it to the cable cars.

“There is a lesson to be learned from how New York has been able to manage their tables successfully,” Krehbiel said of what the group is trying to do with the plaza proposal.

Boykins likes the idea of U.N. Plaza but won’t commit until he sees final designs. Krehbiel said those should be coming by the end of this month.

“We recognize that this was a very tough and difficult issue for SFPD,” said Supervisor Jane Kim, whose district includes the mid-Market area. “We do need to figure out a way to keep this a permanent fixture in San Francisco, to keep the players safe, many of whom are homeless and seniors and have this as one of their recreational activities.”

Low-key protest supports street chess community

People from all walks of life brought their own chess sets and spent a few hours Sunday afternoon playing on Market and Fifth streets, as had been a San Francisco tradition for decades. They were not bothered by police, who last month confiscated chess sets, tables and chairs after businesses complained about drug dealing, gambling and theft.

The “chess-in” differed from the usual activity, which draws mostly poor and homeless players and was forced to move to Market and Sixth streets several years ago. The children, families and community members there came in response to a call by the Coalition On Homelessness, hoping to help the regulars with their plight.

“For us, it’s always an excuse that there’s some kind of illegal activity going on and they push poor people out,” coalition Executive Director Jennifer Friedenbach of the police. “This is about making sure public space is for everyone.”

Hector Torres Jr., 42, who facilitated the $1-per-hour of play system, said drug dealers “would occasionally plant themselves at our tables and make us look like we were involved, but we were not.” Police “put us in a rat hole and they made some stuff up and we are fighting for a San Francisco tradition,” he said.

The chess-in, supported with live music from the Brass Liberation Orchestra, was pleasant until Christina Flores, a regular chess player until a year ago, walked by and loudly voiced her criticism.

She said the regulars gamble illegally and introduced her to crack cocaine.

“It’s a shame that people would bring their children to a drug central capital,” Flores, 32, said. “Come by on a Tuesday or Thursday to Market between 6th and Jones and you’ll see it’s all grown men dealing drugs. Very seldom do you see a female there.”

The chess-playing protestors, otherwise consumed in their games, paused and to clap along with the live music until she left.

— Jessica Kwong