One chess table was set up on the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street on Sept. 28, 2023. Credit: Jesse Sheehan

The community chess tables on Telegraph Avenue at Haste Street were shut down Friday morning, bringing the games to a halt for the second time in two years.

Due to an ongoing permit violation notice from the city of Berkeley, the property owner at 2454 Telegraph Ave. “voluntarily removed” all items off the corner on Friday, according to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko.

Ken Sarachan, who owns the corner lot where the chess tables stood and Rasputin Music, did not respond to a request for comment. The city sent a violation notice to Sarachan in February for obstructing the public right of way and violating a use permit by allowing people to congregate in the corner plaza.

According to the violation notice, outdoor seating is only allowed “within the narrow strip of property along Telegraph Avenue” and only with “approved food service.”

Berkeley police officers were at the scene of the cleanup Friday morning for a “civil standby” at the request of the property owner, according to Chakko, but the city was otherwise not involved with the cleanup. He said the Code Enforcement team will follow up now that the chess tables are gone.

Jesse Sheehan, who founded the outdoor chess club in 2021, said Sarachan has always been amenable to the group and supported their efforts. He said fines were stacking up for the location due to the city’s violation notice, and Sarachan may have been forced to pack up the tables.

But Sheehan said the tables and chess patrons faced continued harassment since they set up the free games. He pushed back against the city’s code violation notices, saying he and others always maintained orderly conditions and a clear right of way for pedestrians.

He claimed the group’s politics haven’t always been welcome on Telegraph Avenue, and that may have been one reason for persistent violation notices and lack of support from local leaders.

Ricci Wynne and Mike Maninger play a chess match on Telegraph Avenue in December 2021. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

When People’s Park became an encampment during the pandemic, several park regulars shifted out of the space due to unfavorable conditions. Many began spending time at Sheehan’s chess tables as an alternative.

Most disagree with the planned UC development at People’s Park and the city’s support of UC’s legal battles. One of the reasons Sheehan started the chess games, which quickly grew to attract nearby students, residents and passersby, was to restore a free recreation space in Southside after People’s Park became a neglected “lobby for social work” instead of what he and others believe should have been a well maintained open space.

“It’s almost as if sitting and playing chess for free doesn’t work in a business district mentality,” Sheehan said. “When people sit down to play chess, classism and economics just fall away.”

Alex Knox, executive director of the Telegraph Avenue Business Improvement District, said he’s been happy to see people enjoying the outdoors and playing chess at the corner, but the group has not always been “neighborly.”

“It’s possible that there never would have been a problem if the group had exercised common courtesy and respect for the space they were using,” Knox said, claiming the tables obstructed walking in the area.

Knox emphasized that neither he nor the business district requested the tables be closed.

“Many people clearly appreciated the opportunity to play chess on Telegraph, and they should not be discouraged from doing so,” Knox said. “I hope that the whole community will continue to enjoy the ave in their own way while respecting others and their surroundings.”

Currently, Sheehan is seeking to recover his property, which includes almost 15 chess sets, and chart a plan for the future. As of late Friday afternoon, he had set up one card table for games to resume.

Correction: Ken Sarachan owns Rasputin Records, not Amoeba Music.

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Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...