Play with the Mechanics

The International House chess crowd tends to be an eclectic and eccentric group. At first it seems a cross-section of escaped asylum patients: frazzled gray hair, too-big military jackets and crooked mustaches abound. But they know their chess. And they certainly know the best places to play, including I-House, which is frequented by former champions and nationally-ranked masters and grandmasters.

Craig Mar is one of the local players who looks especially intimidating bent over a chess board. He crosses his arms in front of him, leaning like a vulture while he ponders his moves. His narrow eyes, partially concealed by a beaten-up old baseball cap, study the board intently.

Away from the board he’s just another friendly local. Craig was a former top-50 player in the United States, but now practices law in the Bay Area. He tells me about how New York and San Francisco are the chess capitals of the world, and how if I’m really serious (which I am not) I should play at the Mechanics’ Chess Club in the city.

The Mechanics’ Club, located at 57 Post Street, has been around since 1854. The club attracts big names in the chess community; Boris Spassky, one of the players to compete in the “Match of the Century” against Bobby Fischer in 1972, visited the club in 2006 to play simultaneous exhibition games against club patrons. He won twenty games and drew five.

The club was destroyed in 1906 by the San Francisco earthquake, but was quickly relocated in 1910 and again in 1923 to keep chess players happy. Since then the club has been a fixture of the Bay Area chess scene.

The club is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. during the week, 5 p.m. on weekends. In addition to open hall hours, the club hosts numerous tournaments throughout the year.

The Carroll Capps Memorial tournament takes place this weekend, November 5 and 6, and has a $1,600 prize payout. On the weekend of November 19, the Pierre Saint-Amant Memorial tournament — which commemorates the memory of a former French consulate who dominated the Bay Area scene in the 1850s — kicks off with a $600 prize payout.

While Craig didn’t necessarily encourage me to go out and flop around in one of these tournaments, they embody the highest level of chess and would at least be an interesting spectacle.

For those less inclined toward more intense chess, the club also hosts classes on weekends for beginners and advanced students alike. The Tuesday Night Marathon, a tradition over 30 years old, is another great way to hone your skills if you’re not interested in cutthroat competition.

If you would like to check out the Mechanics’ Club, just get off at the Montgomery BART Station in San Francisco and walk a block through McKesson Plaza until you reach the Mechanics’ Library. But remember that if you can’t quite make the trip out to the city, there’s always a haven for strong players at the top of Bancroft. Craig will be waiting there for you.