FAIRVIEW LIBRARY — In many respects, the group’s members have little in common. They range in age from 3-and-a-half to 92 and speak a variety of different languages — Russian, Chinese, Spanish and Hindi, to name a few. Some are casual dabblers, others are master practitioners.
But for the past five years, each Thursday afternoon they’ve gathered at the Fairview Branch Public Library, brought together by the game of chess.
“There’s people of every single age and from all over the world,” said Maxine Meltzer, who has attended the chess program with her 6-year-old daughter. “Neither of us are stellar chess players, but it’s a beautiful, beautiful community.”
The library’s free program has become a hit in the community around Fairview by welcoming players of all levels and cultivating a friendly and safe environment, said Mel Bloch, a part-time library employee who coordinates the program. He said about 40 people take part each week.
But now the chess program is ending at Fairview, apparently the victim of budget cuts, Bloch said this week. He was told in November the program would no longer be offered at the library because money for staff hours had been reduced.
The program, though, is being moved to the Ocean Park branch, where despite a 5 percent budget cut Branch Manager Celia Carroll said there will be no problem overseeing the program.
“I love what it does,” she said of the program, nothing that it affords kids an opportunity to earn community service hours by volunteering as chess tutors. Beginning in January, the Ocean Park branch will host the chess program each week on Wednesday and Thursday from 3 p.m. until 6 p.m.
For many participants, though, the end of the program at the Fairview branch is a major loss for the library and a blow to the community. Bloch and others are concerned participants at Fairview won’t follow the program to Ocean Park, and Carroll said it’s possible the library system could end up with just one day for chess if attendance drops.
“I regret it very much but it’s not my decision to make,” Carroll said of the end of chess at Fairview.
Contacted last week, Greg Mullen, City Hall’s director of library systems, said he was unaware that the chess program was ending at Fairview. Decisions about specific programs are in the hands of branch managers, he said, adding that library staff “certainly has the authority to stop something if they think it’s not working.”
Catherine Ronan, the branch manager at Fairview, could not be reached for comment on Monday.
Though Bloch was told the reason for ending the program was financial, others have noted the program takes up very few resources.
“I don’t see that there’s that much to be gained by shutting it down and I think it is a nice way of integrating the community,” said David Lappen, whose son Josh, 15, regularly plays at Fairview. “It serves all different levels of people form children to the homeless and the elderly.”
“When I heard that they were going to shut this down when it costs virtually nothing to put on, it just seemed wrong to me,” said Paul Scott, 57, who has regularly attended in the past three years.
All of the chess boards were donated, Bloch said, and his wages at the library are about $13 per hour. When he was told the program was being discontinued he suggested seeking donations to cover the costs, but, he said, “when that was broached, there was no response.”
To some, the program at Fairview has been particularly significant because it serves such a diverse cross section of the Santa Monica community.
“Everything that’s in America walks into that room,” Bloch said.
He’s watched Palestinians play games with Israelis and Sri Lankans play with Tamils, he said. Many of the players come directly to the library to play chess from nearby Will Rogers Elementary and John Adams Middle School.
Cody O’Connell, 15, said he would drop by every week over the summer to volunteer. “It’s pretty much everybody just trying to learn something from somebody else,” he said.
The Fairview branch has even hosted rock stars of the game.
In 2007, the library held an event where Grand Master Var Akobian, California’s highest rated player, played about 20 opponents simultaneously.
Jonah Blume-Kemkes, now 13, took part in the match and remembers the day vividly.
“He had beaten everybody and I was the last game,” he said. “It was pretty close to a draw but in the end he beat me. I thought it was a great experience.”