Roosevelt Stephens came to Berkeley in the 1970s. It was Berkeley that Stephens said made him who he is. Here, Stephens taught himself to draw portraits. Later, he would even pursue art professionally as an animator for Colossal Pictures.
But on Saturday at around 2 p.m., I found Stephens sitting at the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street, sharing a smoke with his friend Cliff Coleman over a game of chess. Stephens often comes out to this corner, home to Berkeley’s “so-called chess club,” where he said he has the opportunity to meet all kinds of people from all walks of life.
“It seems like they gravitate toward me,” Stephens noted, cheekily. “I have an aura around me, and they can see it. It’s like a magnet. Just like what brought you over here.”
Founded by Jesse Sheehan about two and a half years ago, Berkeley’s “so-called chess club” — which Sheehan said got its namesake from a Daily Californian article that referred to the group as such — has quickly become an essential community pillar, where people from all walks of life, socioeconomic status, race and age can come together and bond over a game of chess.
Its existence is a testament to the power of community and the people’s resistance against a relentless thirst the city and campus have for development and commercialization — often at the expense of degrading the public spaces at the heart of Berkeley’s community.
Every day he can, Jesse Sheehan sets up tables and boards — and a tent if weather necessitates — on the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street for the “chess club,” which is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Although Sheehan technically started the club in its modern-day formation, he wouldn’t necessarily characterize himself as its founder.
“Chess was existing on Telegraph long before I started doing this,” Sheehan said. “I was playing with all the ‘OGs’ that were out here in front of the Med.”
Caffe Mediterraneum, popularly dubbed “the Med,” is now closed. But back in the day, Sheehan said the cafe was a “nexus” of Berkeley’s community, where activists and chess players alike could gather and play.
People’s Park, according to Sheehan, was also a place where many played chess, especially after the Med closed — until encampments populated the park.
“What has taken place with the commercialization of public space has detracted from that,” Sheehan said. “We don’t see cafés, and we don’t see people sitting out and eating like we should. The focus seems to be on maximizing space for capitalism — commercial real estate and student housing encroaches into public space more and more.”
The corner at which the chess club sits at now, intersecting Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street, was formerly known as the “Free Speech Corner,” according to Sheehan. The site was previously home to Cody’s Books, another hub for Berkeley’s counterculture. Sheehan added that he would like for the chess club to honor that historical space.
For Sheehan, it’s important that the chess club be contextualized in Berkeley’s long history of push and pull between community and commercial interests, which he said continues to this day. He added that the chess club has already been disrupted by development in its fewer than three years of existence.
“We’ve had to move several times when they were installing these ‘advertising kiosks,’ and their construction disrupted our club very much,” Sheehan said. “So again, an invasion into public space.”
Berkeley native and chess club regular Cliff Coleman noted feeling fearful that the chess club could be taken away by commercial interests.
“You always worry that something will happen, and somebody will take it away when you have something good,” Coleman said. “That’s why I mention that this is an asset to the community.”
The community cultivated by the chess club Coleman is referring to is, of course, made up of more than just charismatic old-timers like himself and Stephens. As Coleman said, the chess club offers an “inclusive community” for people across a diverse set of economic classes, ethnicities, backgrounds and ages.
Coleman himself is a former world champion skateboarder and topographical mapper. He said more women are also playing chess with the rise of the popular television series “The Queen’s Gambit.”
“The Queen’s Gambit” is in fact what inspired UC Berkeley students Vivien Terrell and Maia Supple’s newfound interest in chess. The pair sat at a table across Stephens and Coleman this past Saturday playing a game of chess on Telegraph.
Terrell said they stumbled across the tables while walking down Telegraph, which they noted are open to whoever wants to play, no matter their skill level.
A few tables down, a nephew and uncle duo also enjoyed a game of chess on Saturday. Daveea Whitmire, owner of the nonprofit Third Parent Family and Youth Services, said he is a frequent chess player, although this was the first time he brought his nephew, who is eight, along.
“It’s a lot of kids that come out here and play adults, and it’s starting to be like a community pillar type of place,” Whitmire said. “So definitely I appreciate that.”
Beyond students and community members, Sheehan said that even masters have come down to the chess club to play, as well as coaches from the Mechanic’s Institute in San Francisco, one of the oldest chess schools in the country.
But according to Sheehan, the chess club is so much more than just a place where all sorts of people can gather and learn from each other, though such a place is greatly important for the community, especially coming out of the pandemic.
“In this country right now, there’s an attempt to erase history — that is happening with People’s Park,” Sheehan said. “The retaking of People’s Park was a successful revolution that teaches us that a group of students, activists, and people in your community can take on the most powerful people and say, ‘no, you may not have everything.’ Our chess club represents that for me.”
Sheehan said that the club existed in Berkeley long before corporate interests attempted to erase the city’s history and public spaces, and he plans for it to stay. According to him, the community that has been built around the club is simply too important to lose.
Where else would one find a retired world champion skateboarder, an artist, college students and an eight year old all at the same place on a Saturday afternoon?
“I saw that in Berkeley for the longest time. Artists, authors and professors sitting and talking, expressing themselves in many ways,” Sheehan said. “Chess does that same stuff. You’ll have people from different walks of life who would not normally stop and speak with each other under the kinds of environments we’re in today; I see them just let it fall away and sit together and become friends. It breaks down societal barriers in magical and dramatic ways.”