Chess Still Played on Market Street, Games Just Out of Sight (Of Tourists)

The Snitch
John Powell
Last week we told you about the Market Street chess games, and how a police action had purportedly meant checkmate for the beloved S.F. street sight.

On Monday, The Snitch did a little "journalism" and found that the games aren't quite dead yet.
However, the games' new location -- within spitting distance of Sixth Street rather than the Powell Street Muni/BART station -- is an economic death sentence, the games' operator says.

And that's close enough.

John Powell

"It's bullshit," says John Powell, the current organizer. He's standing on the 1000 block of Market Street in front of abandoned buildings, instead of in front of a mall and a BART station and constant foot traffic, which were once the games' background and lifeblood. "This whole area? It's dilapidated. It's shit. Nobody can make money down here."

And that's the whole point. Running the games means long days and constant ego-managing with the patrons to maintain order, but they also mean food and hotel money for Powell and former games organizer Hector Torres. Games can be had for $1 an hour, and the ambitious chessmaster can make much more than that with a wee bit of wagering. Bet wisely: According to Powell, the crowd on Monday included one player with a Senior Master ranking from the United States Chess Federation.

But less foot traffic means much fewer of those kind of matches, and much less money.

Powell has a stayaway order from Fifth and Market streets, which means he cannot legally lug the tables, chairs, chess pieces, and chessboards from their home in a nearby liquor store owner's storage area and set them up in front of the Powell BART. Other folks may be able to, and may be able to do so without police interference. But not Powell, and before Powell took over, not Torres, either.

Hector Torres

Torres says two police officers he knows only by badge number informed him in January that if he didn't move the games, they would "fuck me up and trash the chess sets." Torres complied, but shortly afterwards he ended up in the hospital for a variety of reasons (including a gunshot wound, he says).

Powell started setting up the games in their traditional home, but moved to Sixth Street around April after a few talks with the authorities, he estimates.

It was not the San Francisco Police Department who ended the games with a "hostile situation," Powell says. Other than cops coming by to check whether players were drinking or smoking pot in public, cops barely noticed the games, he says.

"Someone -- someone else -- could take these tables and set them up [in their old spot] tomorrow, and SFPD wouldn't care," he adds. "The fact of the matter is, they don't care. None of this is [he points to The Snitch] about chess. It's San Francisco's elite playing bigger games. It's they who are battling. We're just pieces on a chessboard."

Powell says he hears rumors about city officials raising money to build permanent tables, eliminating the need for the mobile setup. He also hears rumors about well-heeled interests deeming the games undesirable for their old location. He also hears that when and if the current block is redeveloped, the chess games will move again.

If nothing else, the Market Street chess games appear to be another victim of gentrification.

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