By Emily Green
For some 30 years, chess players from all walks of life have congregated on Powell Street in downtown San Francisco to play each other.
So when the San Francisco Police Department kicked the players off Market Street in September, citing drug use and crime, many players as well as longtime city residents were upset by what they viewed as unwarranted interference with a long-standing tradition.
“We want our San Francisco tradition back. We want the chess tables back on Fifth and Market,” said Hector Torres, one of the original players on Market, who led a rally on Oct. 6 to protest the ban. Dozens of people showed up, folks who had never before played there, but who opposed the ban on principle.
The reality was a little more complicated: Even some of the chess players were relieved by the police’s intervention.
The players, primarily working-class immigrants from the Philippines, have found a new home at the park by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, south of Market near downtown. About a dozen of them usually show up – half as many as before. Gone are the homeless and the drunks, and also the tourists. The men – and it’s all men – agree: The new location is safer, and nicer. But it’s also less exciting than on Market Street.
It had become “dangerous and dangerous,” said Rizaldy Martin, a regular on Market Street for 20 years.
Martin works in the mail room at the Levi’s store, and would go to Market Street after work. The games were like in Manila, he said, where people play on the street. But then drug dealers started coming.
“This [was] just late 2000, it becomes not so good because they use that as a screen. They pretend they are playing in the table, but they are doing their activities around there…. It’s nasty there. People gambling. Really. It’s becoming a bad reputation to chess. If the city OK’d us to go back there, I don’t know. I hope not.”
But fellow Filipino Alex Penano misses the old locale. “It has a lot of energy over there. From homeless to rich people to doctors, lawyers, stuff like that. Now it’s just us.”
Penano learned to play chess in the Philippines by watching his dad. He said chess is a national pastime in the Philippines. The country has produced 13 chess grand masters, the highest title a chess player can obtain. And one of the best young players in the world right now is from the Philippines.
Penano took up the game actively after moving to San Francisco in 1989, following a separation from his wife.
“After my divorce I was depressed then, and it relieves my loneliness and stuff by playing chess, because my mind was focusing on chess and not on my divorce,” Penano said.
As the night falls, he watches as two of the best players – Manuel Santo and Rizaldy Martin – furiously move their pieces in the waning minutes of the game. Martin is on a winning streak. He has won three in a row. “It goes with the brain,” he said, as he pockets $5 in winnings.
Then, with almost no break between games, they begin again.
Listen to Emily Green’s complete report for KQED News: