Turning the corner onto Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street in Berkeley is an exercise in nostalgia. Suddenly, perpetually rotating storefronts, eye-catching new housing and shiny electric cars make way to dozens of people huddled over chess boards — phones out of sight — as smoke from blunts and cigarettes intermingle with cheers, laughter and the occasional expletive.
New York City has Washington Square Park, and now, Berkeley has Telegraph Avenue — a renewed home for public chess.
Jesse Sheehan organized the first games on Telegraph and Dwight Way at the end of summer last year, but he’s been playing chess locally for over a decade, as well as advocating for communal, public spaces. He painstakingly sets up the tables and boards every day (weather permitting) from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., with tablecloths, stools, lamps and candlelight neatly arranged for nighttime play.
Sheehan calls it a celebration of “ordinary hobbies with another person,” the type of activity that seemed to especially teeter on the brink of extinction during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Everyone plays — college students, working folks … we do our best to keep it peaceful and make sure no one is being disturbed,” Sheehan said, describing it as a vehicle for social uplift. “It’s a godsend for people who need a place to be safe, outside, coming out of the pandemic.”
The unique setting of Telegraph Avenue and its proximity to the Cal campus bring frequent surprises to the patrons at the chess club. Occasionally, a grandmaster has wandered over to the public tables after attending an event at the university — and even been bested by a Telegraph chess club regular, Sheehan said.
On a recent afternoon, an 8-year-old boy visited the chess club with his father.
“He beat everyone,” Sheehan said, who learned the young player was a savant. “There were 20-30 people watching him.”
The regulars are an assortment of players who learned the game on the street, grew up in chess camps, learned from their friends, or picked up the game while incarcerated. There are also first-time players who curiously eye the boards as they pass by, and professionals and students alike are eager to bring them into the fold.
“It’s just for fun (when we play here),” said Mike Maninger, who was playing with a new chess partner, Ricci Wynne, on a sunny day in early December. “Really (chess) is kind of the psychology of European folly and the celebration of ego. And so some people really care about winning or losing. But it’s just a game!”
“I see the strong players are coming out of the industrial prison complex, extremely strong players,” Sheehan said. “Like world champions and masters that didn’t know they were masters. They don’t lose.”
Sometimes, regulars take days off from Telegraph to play matches at the famed chess club in San Francisco’s 168-year-old Mechanics’ Institute.
Mason Phan, a junior and pre-med student at Cal, is a frequent visitor to the boards. Sheehan said Phan handily beats most players who come his way (as he did against this first-timer Berkeleyside reporter), and even plays the game blindfolded, calling out the square numbers.
“They sit down like they’re going to be able to beat him, and then they’re asking 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 not happenstance.”
Phan adamantly demurred the compliment of being “unbeatable” and attributed his success to his age and a younger mind, but did mention that most players who have bested him are tournament regulars.
He came across the chess games while skateboarding around Telegraph Avenue, and while he only informally learned the game as a child, he really leaned into the game as a freshman at Cal. He now teaches people how to play chess, helps Sheehan with the boards and picks up games with passersby, and joked that coming to Telegraph to play chess is now a daily “unhealthy obsession.”
“Given the community here, you get to meet really good people, and make friends,” Phan said. “A lot of the people who play chess here didn’t really go to college, or have gone through prison, or they have the perspective of living on the street. They give really good life advice, like ‘Don’t take anything for granted.’ It’s really valuable.”
The games were born out of a desire for free, public recreation
Public chess has gone through many iterations in Berkeley, and some of the biggest outposts for the game once included the famed, now closed Caffe Med, sidewalk spaces shared with restaurants throughout the Telegraph Avenue corridor and decades of games at People’s Park.
Sheehan said these hubs transitioned out due to fires, pushback from law enforcement when the games were in public roadways and other obstacles to establishing a permanent home for chess games in Berkeley.
In San Francisco, the police department officially shut down outdoor chess in Civic Center in 2013 due to concerns of drug use and “public nuisance,” and the scene (which had grown to nearly 50 tables from its inception in the 1980s) never quite recovered, Sheehan said.
Berkeley’s People’s Park became a homeless encampment during the COVID-19 pandemic due to relaxed enforcement rules, and the number of tents ballooned over the course of 2021. Sheehan said the final blow to its use as a recreation space came with the closure of the West Berkeley homeless encampments by the Berkeley Marina.
Dozens of people who used to live by the Bay sought refuge at the park downtown, he said, and it was no longer feasible to play chess there while people used it as a living space.
People’s Park is now set to be converted into student housing, and, among other things, Sheehan sees it as the loss of one of the few, public recreation spaces in the area surrounding Cal not governed by campus rules, like no smoking.
The closest parks are Willard Park and Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, both about a mile away from the Telegraph thoroughfare. The area is slowly recovering from a scarring pandemic, but some lament that even before then many of the longtime vendors and counterculture that dominated the area from the 60s through the 80s had been pushed out.
“They’re using People’s Park as a lobby for social work, and the displacement is our chess club,” Sheehan said.
He makes it a point to keep the Telegraph Avenue chess scene relatively quiet, safe and unobstructed, and said the group has largely been left alone since they started playing on the sidewalk, aside from relocating from Dwight and Telegraph due to road changes like “smart kiosks.”
“That’s the biggest struggle, given that we don’t have an official spot to set up,” Phan said. “If they start doing any type of construction here, we’ll have to move again.”
On days when the games go particularly late, Sheehan will sometimes pack up in his car and sleep there for the night (instead of driving back to his home in Hayward) so he can be back in the morning to arrange the tables for another round of eager players.
“I enjoy finding the players that can really play,” Sheehan said. “It’s like watching a musician, or to see someone excited about something that they love that much. That is to me, a really special thing.”