Marvin Boykins started playing chess at age 8, growing up in the Bayview and Western Addition. In the '80s he trounced opponents outside what's now a hoity-toity shopping district by Powell Street BART station. The retail corridor that's now dominated by Nordstrom's and other department stores used to harbor several large granite squares where the best chess players in San Francisco would best each other.
When street vendors complained about the spectacle -- or rather, the crowds it drew -- they migrated to Fifth and Market streets, mounting dozens of tables on a corner now occupied by Payless Shoes.
Now 57, Boykins can still win a game in eight moves. But he can't find many takers, thanks to a recent crackdown on Market Street chess players. The former University of San Francisco student sat alone on the sidewalk yesterday, a vinyl board laid at his feet, a shopping cart parked by his side, and a cigarette wedged between his lips. Boykins smoked ponderously. He was the last player left.
"Two weeks ago the police decided there was too much 'surrounding activity,'" he mused, naming a few chess scene interlopers who may have caused the shutdown. They included all the usual suspects: addicts, drug peddlers, and dice throwers, along with a small contingent of gamblers who'd huddle in a circle, cards fanning over their fingertips. According to a Chronicle blog post, police had seen an uptick in drug arrests on that swath of Market Street, and gone so far as to theorize that the chess games might be a front for something else.
On Friday a group of cops raided the area and confiscated all the tables, Boykins said. They threatened to hand out citations to anyone who wouldn't comply.
In the days that followed, Market was scrubbed clean of one of its oldest traditions. Boykins remained with his chess board surreptitiously stashed on the sidewalk, one eye on the lookout for cops. When two of them strode by to detain a pedestrian, Boykins tossed the board in his shopping cart.
"I try to be discreet," he said, watching the cops carefully. He only clocks two games a day now, in comparison to the dozen he'd play even a month ago. Most people are just too scared to come out, he says.
Boykins believes things will blow over in a few weeks, and the chess players will return. He's seen these skirmishes before. "I think they just got discouraged when the police took everything," he reasoned, watching a street sweeper pirouette along a row of empty storefronts. Without its colony of chess players the block seemed eerily desolate.
Boykins plans to return today, chess set in hand -- he's played chess on Market Street for 30 years, after all. But for now he'll keep his tables at home.