The Chess Man of Market Street

Every morning the old man brings the boards, pieces, tables, and chairs. All you need to bring is 50 cents.

The Chess Man of Market Street

Every morning, sometime between 10 and 11, 77-year-old Floro Bagasala leaves his Tenderloin hotel and begins his slow, stately walk to Fifth and Market streets, pushing a loaded shopping cart.

At the corner, Bagasala begins unloading the items in the cart: five fold-up chess tables and 21 worn folding chairs. A crowd gathers as he sets them up in a neat row.

"Where have you been?" demands a man with a Russian accent. "There is nothing to do until you come."

Bagasala grins and wordlessly offers him a chair. Reaching into a black duffel bag slung across his chest, Bagasala produces a purple velvet Crown Royal bag. He shakes out the contents -- plastic chess pieces -- onto the table. Someone sits down facing the Russian man, and a game starts.

For six years now, Bagasala, a Filipino-American World War II veteran, has set up chess tables on that corner, making him something of a celebrity on the block. He is also well known in the Asian-American community, and several independent filmmakers have made documentaries about him (one, called Little Brown Man in San Francisco, will screen this weekend at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival).

When Bagasala finishes unloading his cart, everyone from homeless chess lovers to retired immigrants to guys in business suits takes a seat for a game. Some games get heated, and the diminutive but fearless Bagasala steps between the players to stop a potential fight. Others refuse to give Bagasala the 50-cent fee he charges per game, but he uses a mix of reverse psychology and charm to make them pay up. "You don't have to pay," he'll say, smiling. "Whatever, it doesn't matter. You know, pay me whatever." Invariably, the money is turned over.

And some people have made away with the expensive game clocks he provides, but he just shrugs and buys new ones. For the most part, though, the players are quiet and serious. Sometimes they challenge him to a game or two. He usually wins.


Bagasala came to San Francisco in 1993, three years after the U.S. government extended citizenship to the Filipinos who fought with America in WWII. As a guerrilla soldier, he says, he earned his right to be a U.S. citizen, and he left his family in the Philippines to claim his right. But Bagasala gets teary-eyed when he talks about how far away his family is.

Bagasala's chess business began a few years ago because he wanted to send money to his family. Like all Filipino-American WWII veterans, Bagasala has yet to receive veterans' benefits promised by the U.S., so he relies on $750-per-month Social Security checks and Medicare. He has to be creative to scrape enough money together to send to his wife, nine children, and innumerable grandchildren.

At first, Bagasala scavenged for cans and bottles, which he recycled for money. But after a few years, it made the old man tired, so he turned to the chessboards instead.

"When I pick up the plastic bottles and cans, it was very hard for me," he says. "In the Philippines I played chess also, and I always see people playing, so I decided this was something I wanted to do." In the beginning, he used to get arrested because he doesn't have a business license. Nowadays, the police look the other way.

Bagasala makes as little as $20 a day. He also sells cigarettes for 25 cents each, and during the Gay Pride Parade he lets people stand on his chairs for a better view -- for a $2 fee. Though it's not much, the money he makes is enough to occasionally assemble a simple balik bayanbox -- a duty-free Filipino care package -- of clothes and food.


It grows dark quickly during the winter, but at 8 p.m. people still sit intently at Bagasala's tables, squinting under the yellow streetlights to see their game boards. Bagasala asks people to finish their games so he can go home. When the last challengers finally walk away, Bagasala loads up his cart and begins his tired walk home. There, he will park the cart in the hotel lobby, paying the night guard $2 to watch it. He will go up to his room and crawl into bed. And he will wake up tomorrow and set up his tables. --Bernice Yeung

Playing It Safe

Was KQED being too timid when it decided earlier this year to postpone airing a documentary on the San Francisco Public Defender's Office? The two-hour documentary, Presumed Guilty, was filmed over three years and portrays several deputy public defenders at work, including Jeff Adachi -- a candidate for public defender in this week's election. Toward the end of filming, Mayor Willie Brown appointed Kimiko Burton, daughter of his friend, state Sen. John Burton, as public defender. Her first action was to fire Adachi, in advance of her own run for the office.

KQED's reason for delaying the film was an FCC regulation stating that "no noncommercial educational broadcasting station may support or oppose any candidate for political office."

"We thought the film could be interpreted as being sympathetic to Adachi," says KQED Executive Producer Sue Ellen McCann, and that showing it could have jeopardized the station's broadcasting license. The station also refused to allow the Roxie Cinema to go ahead with a planned weeklong run of the film.

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