A seat for everyone to play chess on Telegraph Avenue
Turning the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street in Berkeley is an exercise in nostalgia. Suddenly, ever-rotating storefronts, eye-catching new housing and shiny electric cars give way to dozens of people crammed into chessboards – phones out of sight – as smoke from blunts and cigarettes mixes with cheers , to the occasional laughter and swearing.
New York has Washington Square Park, and now Berkeley has Telegraph Avenue – a renewed home for public chess.
Jesse Sheehan hosted the first games on Telegraph and Dwight Way late last summer, but he has been playing chess locally for more than a decade and advocating for common public spaces. He painstakingly sets up the tables and boards daily (weather permitting) from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., with neatly arranged tablecloths, stools, lamps, and candles for nighttime games.
Sheehan calls it a celebration of “ordinary pastimes with another person,” the type of activity that seemed particularly close to extinction during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Everyone is playing – students, workers… we do our best to keep it peaceful and make sure no one is disturbed,” Sheehan said, describing him as a social uplifter. “It’s a godsend for people who need a place to be safe, outdoors, coming out of the pandemic.”
The unique setting of Telegraph Avenue and its proximity to the California campus hold frequent surprises for customers of the chess club. Sometimes a grandmaster has taken to the public tables after attending a university event – and even been beaten by a regular at the Telegraph chess club, Sheehan said.
A recent afternoon, an 8-year-old boy visited the chess club with his father.
“He beat everyone,” said Sheehan, who learned the young player was a savant. “There were 20 to 30 people watching it.”
Regulars are an assortment of players who learned the game on the streets, grew up in chess camps, learned from friends, or learned the game while incarcerated. There are also beginner players who stare curiously at the boards as they pass, and professionals and students alike are eager to get on board.
“It’s just for fun (when we play here),” said Mike Maninger, who was playing with new chess partner Ricci Wynne on a sunny day in early December. “Really (chess) is kind of the psychology of European madness and the celebration of ego. And so some people really care about winning or losing. But it’s just a game!”
“I see strong players coming out of the prison-industrial complex, extremely strong players,” Sheehan said. “Like world champions and masters who didn’t know they were masters. They don’t lose.
Regulars sometimes take days off from the Telegraph to play matches at San Francisco’s famed 168-year-old Mechanics’ Institute Chess Club.
Mason Phan, a junior and pre-med student at Cal, is a frequent visitor to the councils. Sheehan said Phan easily beats most players who come his way (as he did against this rookie reporter from Berkeleyside), and even plays the game blindfolded, calling the square numbers.
“They sit around like they can beat him and then they ask him for lessons,” Sheehan said, mentioning that the only player to beat him in recent history was a grandmaster. “If you beat him, it’s no coincidence.”
Phan adamantly refused the compliment of being “unbeatable” and attributed his success to his age and younger spirit, but mentioned that most of the players who beat him are tournament regulars.
He came across chess games while skateboarding around Telegraph Avenue, and although he only learned the game informally as a child, he really leaned into the game as a rookie. at Cal. He now teaches people how to play chess, helps Sheehan with boards and picks up sets from passers-by, and joked that coming to the Telegraph to play chess is now a daily ‘unhealthy obsession’.
“Given the community here, you meet some really good people and make friends,” Phan said. “A lot of people who play chess here didn’t really go to college, or went through prison, or they have the prospect of living on the streets. They give very good life advice, like “Don’t take anything for granted”. It’s really valuable.
Games were born out of a desire for free public recreation
Public chess has seen many iterations in Berkeley, and some of the game’s biggest outposts once included the famed, now-closed Caffe Med, sidewalk spaces shared with restaurants in the Telegraph Avenue hallway, and decades of gaming. at People’s Park.
Sheehan said those hubs disappeared due to fires, law enforcement pushback when the games took place on public roads and other obstacles to establishing a permanent venue for the games. chess at Berkeley.
In San Francisco, the police department officially closed outdoor chess at the Civic Center in 2013 due to drug use and “public nuisance” concerns, and the scene (which had grown to nearly 50 tables since its creation in the 1980s) never quite recovered. , Sheehan said.
Berkeley’s popular park has become a homeless encampment during the COVID-19 pandemic due to relaxed enforcement rules, and the number of tents has skyrocketed over the course of 2021. Sheehan said the final blow to his use as a recreational space came with the closure of the west. Berkeley homeless encampments near the Berkeley Marina.
Dozens of people who lived near the bay sought refuge in the downtown park, he said, and it was no longer possible to play chess there as people used it as a space of life.
People’s Park is now on the verge of being converted into student housing and, among other things, Sheehan sees it as the loss of one of the few public recreational spaces in the Cal area not governed by campus rules, such as the No Smoking.
The closest parks are Willard Park and Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, both about a mile from the Telegraph thoroughfare. The region is slowly recovering from a scarring pandemic, but some lament that even before that, many of the longtime vendors and countercultures that dominated the region from the 1960s to the 1980s were forced out.
“They use People’s Park as a lobby for social work, and displacement is our chess club,” Sheehan said.
He makes a point of keeping the Telegraph Avenue chess scene relatively quiet, safe and uncluttered, and said the group has been largely left alone since they started playing on the sidewalk, in addition to relocating from Dwight and Telegraph due to route changes like “smart kiosks.
“That’s the biggest difficulty, given that we don’t have an official place to set up,” Phan said. “If they start doing any kind of construction here, we’ll have to move again.”
On days when games are particularly late, Sheehan sometimes packs up in his car and sleeps there for the night (instead of driving home to Hayward) so he can be back in the morning to arrange tables for another turn of impatient players.
“I like finding players who can really play,” Sheehan said. “It’s like watching a musician or seeing someone excited about something they love so much. It is for me, a really special thing.