San Francisco bans street chess, says it's a 'disguise' for 'other things'

Police confiscate boards, tables and chairs in street chess crackdown in San Francisco.

Chess players on Market Street in San Francisco take no notice of a noisy demonstration against the war in Afghanistan. (File/UPI/Terry Schmitt)
Chess players on Market Street in San Francisco take no notice of a noisy demonstration against the war in Afghanistan. (File/UPI/Terry Schmitt) | License Photo

A common sight in most large U.S. cities, street chess, has been banned in San Francisco after thriving for more than 30 years near Fifth and Market Streets.

San Francisco Police earlier this month confiscated boards, tables and chairs from the area where dozens of people, mostly homeless, play the game every day.


"It's turned into a big public nuisance," said Capt. Michael Redmond, adding that local complaints and narcotics arrests have increased over the past six months. "I think maybe it's a disguise for some other things that are going on."

Police admitted regular chess players weren't a problem, but said the area had come to attract illegal gambling and drug use.

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"They're being mean for no reason," Hector Torres Jr., 42, said about the police. "To me, it's a scapegoat." Torres Jr. says chess saved him from gambling addiction, and that the open-air games are a discrimination-free zone welcoming everyone to the board, whether they're homeless or millionaires, San Francisco Giants players or ex-convicts.

But business owners in the area don't see it that way.

"It's an excuse for illegal activity -- period," said Dimitri Madrid, manager at Beauty Supply and Hair Salon, which sent four letters to Mayor Ed Lee complaining about drug and alcohol use, violence and barbecuing near the chess tables.


Now that the tables and crowds are gone, Madrid says he no longer sees people clutch their purses as they walk by. "It's like night and day," he said. "Sales have been up."

But Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, says police were wrong to clamp down on chess.

"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."

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Redmond says players' property will be returned to them at some point, and says chess may be able to continue in the future if a business wants to sponsor a permit for the sidewalk games.

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