San Francisco Chess Club carries 165 years of royal history
Chess is a moving experience. Bold bishops have cut strategic pieces at all levels. Bold knights gallop here and there, attacking unsuspecting pawns and making their moves on the queen.
At the Mechanics’ Institute Chess Club in San Francisco, considered the oldest chess club in the country, such epic battles regularly take place in the outward silence of mental machinations. We recently spoke with Chess Director Abel Talamantez for a little more background on this hidden Bay Area gem:
Q: Can you tell us about the history of the club?
A: It is truly part of the history of the Mechanics’ Institute, founded in 1854 as an intellectual and cultural institution. The Chess Club is part of the MI charter, and it is the oldest continuously operating chess club in the country. We have been at this location since 1906. Our dedicated chess room has our restored century old chess tables. It really is a special place.
Q: Who plays chess these days?
A: It’s really diverse. We have unique individuals. It’s a truly committed culture. People who come to our club have been there for many, many years. It is a haven. There’s a sense of belonging where they can express themselves here through their game. People really rely on the club for the social interaction aspect too, special events, more than just a place with a chessboard.
Q: Who can play at the club?
A: We offer regular tournaments and casual games open to everyone at different levels of experience. You don’t need to be a member of the institute to play, but (membership) offers many other benefits. Once a month we have a Monday night tournament. We have weekly Tuesday night marathons, the biggest league day in the entire country. It’s been going on for decades.
We organize state championship events, offer lectures and lessons. We also provide free chess lessons to hundreds of San Francisco public school students each week, bringing chess to the next generation. Studies show that chess can help kids focus, plan, problem-solve, solve problems, and exercise sportsmanship.
Q: How has the chess world changed?
A: You would think that with the growth of technology and the ability for players to not have to play in person, we wouldn’t need a club anymore. But the need to have a live person in front of you and the benefit of being able to interact is really, really important. That said, we use technology as a tool in how chess is presented to the world. Very recently, we have been able to broadcast our big events online on a platform that allows us to do live commentary and with panels with electronic sensors, so people can follow the movements. In addition to game reviews, we also do a lot of interviews to give people an idea of the players. We try to connect with people, not just the game.
Q: Where are some other great places to play in the Bay Area?
A: Well, while I work here in San Francisco, I live in San Jose, and a really nice outdoor place is on Santana Row. In the middle of the courtyard they have chess tables and a big giant chess board with giant pieces. It’s also right next to the tequila bar, so it’s a great place to gamble.
Good places to play chess
The Chess Club: The club, which is open for casual play from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends, is located in the famed Mechanics’ Institute, 57 Post St., in the financial district of San Francisco. Learn more at www.chessclub.org.
Santana Row Chess Plaza: A giant chessboard with oversized game pieces and several chess tables await players on the plaza (356 Santana Row) near Vintage Wine Bar, Le Jardin Tequila Bar and other restaurants. Players can borrow chess sets from the Santana Row Concierge; www.santanarow.com.