Council members agree the door is open to bring back chess or add other amenities in the future

Santa Monica city staff were poised to begin the task of tearing the tables and benches out of Chess Park on Tuesday, March 1, following a decision to remove the park’s benches and tables in an effort to deter unhoused people from convening there.

The furniture removal was announced in a February information item posted to the City’s website, and Mayor Sue Himmelrich confirmed it was not a Council decision but rather an administrative item taken up by city staff following recommendation by the Recreation & Parks Commission. The Commission recommended the move following years of public safety complaints from local residents.

Members of the local chess community said they were surprised and dismayed to learn the City would be removing the equipment from the park, which they said they often used for tournaments and meet-ups prior to the pandemic.

Members of the Santa Monica Bay Chess Club, which meets weekly at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church just outside city limits, fired off a flurry of protestations in the days between the city’s announcement and the planned demolition, which was initially scheduled to start on Monday, Feb. 28.

“The recent lack of participation in the chess park there is only a covid thing. Prior to covid, it was thriving,” chess player Joe Block wrote in a letter to City staff. “People would start playing there and then migrate over to the Coffee Bean on Main St when it got dark out (which went out of business during covid sadly). So there’s fewer and fewer places to play unfortunately, especially on the west side.”

Block went on to say he did not believe the removal of tables and chairs would have an impact on the levels of crime reported in the park. That sentiment was echoed by other chess players.

“By removing the chess activity there and just having empty space — I don’t see how that stops anybody from hanging around in that empty space and selling, buying or using drugs,” Santa Monica Bay Chess Club President Pete Savino said in an interview with the Daily Press. “Of all these other issues that the City is concerned about, removing the chess part is not the problem.”

Although Chess Park formally received its monicker in 1999 when the City installed the current benches, tables and permanent chess boards there, Savino said some of the elder club members recalled playing chess games and tournaments there as far back as 1959 — with oral history of Chess Park hosting chess players for decades before that. That history is memorialized on the Club’s website, in “A brief, if incomplete history” written by member Tibor Weinberger.

“Chess was played in Santa Monica long before the Santa Monica Bay Chess Club (SMBCC) came into being. The area adjacent to Muscle Beach just south of the pier, today designated as Chess Park, was home to chess activity as far back as the 1930s,” Weinberger wrote. “Rudimentary wooden tables and benches were utilized by chess lovers to ply their trade during daylight hours year-round. An informal club coalesced in 1937 and the few members found various venues, like nearby cafes in downtown Santa Monica where they could play chess after dark.”

Savino said he had not been to the park since before COVID-19. Even before the pandemic, Savino acknowledged a growing issue of homeless individuals stretching out on benches, but said during tournaments he would ask them to leave and they generally would go without much complaint.

Because of COVID, the club had suspended in-person meetings for nearly two years, but resumed gatherings in February of this year. Savino said he was expecting to be able to use the park for upcoming tournaments later in the year.

Speaking to the Daily Press on Tuesday afternoon, both Himmelrich and Council Member Phil Brock agreed the door remained open to bring chess back to the park once the City budget allowed. Due to budget constraints, city staff wrote in the February information item, there was no immediate plan to bring amenities to the area. For now, it will sit as a flat lot.

Brock and Council Member Oscar de la Torre said they were also open to the possibility of using part of the park area for fitness equipment, expanding Santa Monica’s famed original Muscle Beach, but any developments on the .29-acre parcel would need to be discussed at a future meeting.

“Let chess players know: The park is not being taken away. It’s being relocated, and we’ll have answers for that sometime in the next couple of months,” Brock said on Tuesday.

emily@smdp.com