Prison Chess
January 27, 2012 8:45 PM   Subscribe

Photographs of the Prison Chess series were taken in 2008 and 2009 in a maximum security facility of the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton.

A chess set made by a GULAG prisoner - on display in the Riga Occupation Museum.
posted by Trurl (18 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Shit. I've known a lot of hardasses, criminals, and ex-cons who were excellent chess players.

The chess-as-thinking-man's-game metaphor cuts both ways. On the one hand, some of these dudes learn the game it seems mostly to convince themselves that they're just as smart as anyone, education or no. And chess is no better an IQ test than an IQ test is. On the other hand, the fact that they do get so damn good makes it hard to keep swallowing the dumb thug party line.

People are incredible, and prison is miserable. I am happy these people have found another world to pour themselves into.
posted by 256 at 9:09 PM on January 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

That gulag set is a beautiful chess set. I started carving pieces from soapstone a couple of years back, and it's is painstaking and boring work that abandonned after 3 pieces.
posted by Hoopo at 9:13 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

That gave me a more hope than I thought it would. Also: Love the rooks & queen's braids in that gulag chess set.
posted by circular at 9:53 PM on January 27, 2012

I am possibly the world's worst chess player. I have played the game since I was small. I have been a member of chess clubs. I have owned chess software, and before that, an early chess-playing electronic board. I have read books on chess. I have played many, many games. And I SUCK at it. Comedian Bill Hicks once described the look on dumb people's faces as "looking like a dog to whom you've just showed a card trick." That's me, after you beat me in chess. I have no idea what you just did, and I don't even know what I don't know. It's sad.

That is all to say this:

When I was in jail on a pot charge, I played a lot of cards. Spades, Hearts, Rummy, Tonk. Other guys played chess. The undisputed chess champion of the cell block was a guy, I've forgotten his name, but it was along the lines of Moose or Big'Un or something. Huge guy. Fat over muscle. Probably 6'3", more if you include the 'fro. He was awaiting transfer to prison, going down for 10-12 years after having been found guilty of tying up a couple of guys with duct tape, beating them within an inch of their lives until they told him where they kept their stash, then stealing their money, their weed, their guns, and their car. The cops caught him the next day, making it rain in a local titty bar. The pot and the guns were still in the stolen car. Which was parked in front of the titty bar. In a handicapped space.

This was the story he told, like it was the funniest thing in the world, while giving me a few chess lessons. I can't say I improved my game much, but I figure that's due more to my own incompetence than to his lessons.

Moose would set up five boards and challenge all comers, simultaneously. And win. I saw him lose one game, once. To his big chess rival, a guy doing short time for prescription forgery. Moose immediately shook the guy's hand, moved a few pieces around to recreate an earlier part of the game, and asked if THIS was where he made his mistake. The guy was like, nah, Moose, I just got lucky. Moose looked at him and said, "It's chess, not pussy, homes. You don't just GET LUCKY."

Moose was still awaiting transfer when I got out. I bet he's the Chess Champion of Holman Prison by now.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:05 PM on January 27, 2012 [232 favorites]

If there is a just Mod, BitterOldPunk's comment gets sidebarred.
posted by KingEdRa at 10:09 PM on January 27, 2012 [8 favorites]

Do you have a certain strategy in chess? Escape out of the Congo
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 10:55 PM on January 27, 2012

Like BitterOldPunk, I too did a stint in county for a pot charge, but chess was my pastime of choice. The players tended to be of the older, contemplative sort, and the lack of game clocks allowed for ample time to shoot the shit and swap stories. I'll never forget the tales of mischief and woe (usually being a healthy admixture of fact and fable) that I heard over the jailhouse chessboard. The drama of these stories seemed to spill into the play, where the possibility of victory on the board stood in tension with the defeat of incarceration—for all such stories were invariably part of a larger narrative that concluded in the ever-present jail cell.

The cell pervades everything; one can only escape for the duration of a daydream, and upon return is enclosed anew by that concrete reality. The chessboard is a realm of empowerment that defies that reality—a physical, measurable place where the inmate is elevated from pawn to king. Chess is a rejection of the cell.

I remember one older gentleman who found refuge in this small liberty. We were closely matched in our opposing styles; he was wily and uncentered in his play, while I deployed my pieces with a thorough rigidity. Over time, his flanking tactics began to find the cracks in my lines, and he won with greater frequency. Frustrated by his unorthodoxy ("that wasn't supposed to happen!") and annoyed by his victor's grin (poorly hidden beneath an unkempt mustache), for a time I declined any further matches. He was undeterred. Our cellblock had a dearth of quality players (relatively speaking), so he employed his roundabout stratagems in an attempt to exhaust my peaceful resolve and do battle once more. He would tangentially mention chess in unrelated conversations. He would "accidentally" leave the chessboard in my cell. He made a habit of walking by my door, swinging the chessboard with a taunting gait, whistling innocently through his damn mustache. The old bastard wouldn't leave me alone.

When I finally caved and gave him a match, his excitement was palpable. I watched the walls that surrounded him dissolve and all but disappear as the board grew in the importance of the moment. It was Chess Time, and the rules of the game—in lieu of the rules of our resident institution—were all that mattered. It was then that I realized that the chessboard is a special domain, one that provides for an agency of self and environment that is stripped by the title 'prisoner'.

I let him win that match.
posted by troll at 12:58 AM on January 28, 2012 [38 favorites]

Metafilter:It's chess, not pussy, homes. You don't just GET LUCKY.
posted by Renoroc at 3:12 AM on January 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

These are great, thanks for posting!
posted by carter at 4:25 AM on January 28, 2012

Occupation outside prison?

Do you have a strategy?

The one thing I have heard again and again from prisoners is the idea of thinking before acting.
That's got to be a good thing.

I'll repost my comment from an old FPP (although the link in the comment is dead- I used to play in tournaments at a prison in my state).
posted by MtDewd at 5:46 AM on January 28, 2012

Punk's and troll's comments are both among the very best to ever enrich one of my posts.

Both relate having been jailed on marijuana charges.

Perhaps it's a coincidence.
posted by Trurl at 6:06 AM on January 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Old men. Look what we do to our old men. We should be ashamed.
posted by latkes at 8:45 AM on January 28, 2012

I remember The Grass Arena having some great stuff on prison chess... the old lag teaching the young to play chess and then at night in their bunks just picturing the moves in their heads.. the protagonist is allowed a bit of help by using the small panes of glass in their cell's window as part of his imaginary chess board.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:07 AM on January 28, 2012

This is a chess story that isn't about prison, but it is about resistance.

I lived for a number of years in housing cooperatives, and at some point the University was looking to shut down one of our houses and repurpose it as administrator office space. They were using all kinds of tricks to get what they wanted, like bad accounting and fabricating safety issues. In the midst of this, a guy came through town who worked as an advocate and advisor for cooperative housing ventures. We spent a long day together, catching him up on all that was going on, and getting some advice on how to proceed. And then we went out to the camp fire and started drinking.

Somewhere in that space we learned that we were both chess players, and at four in the morning we started playing a game, loud and violent to the chagrin of my housemate. The guy was way the fuck better than me at chess; I've been playing for years and years and know a bit of opening book and have a decent endgame, but he was just straight up better. And so we played a game and I lost badly.

But then he looked at me across the table, our heads buzzing with alcohol, and said, "Ok, we're going to play one more game. But this time it's for the house. I'm the University, and the house is on the line. Let's go." And we set up the pieces, and I thought about it a bit, and realized that his knowledge of the book was far better than mine; my only hope was to get him way the hell outside of the chess that he knew, and play a scrappy, guerrilla kind of chess if there was to be any hope. And we played like hell, for the next two hours, my housemate occasionally sticking her head out to tell us to shut the fuck up. Then, a bit before the sun came up, I managed the checkmate.

And a couple months later, after a hard fight, the house stayed open.

So what did I learn as a life lesson from chess? Asymmetrical warfare. Take on the system, get it into a place that it doesn't understand, and then beat it on fundamentals. You'll never win if you don't fight, but you have to fight smart. And ignore the annoyance of the bystanders.
posted by kaibutsu at 11:14 AM on January 28, 2012 [52 favorites]

I am struck that we have 2 people here that went to jail over pot. Jail! It is completely ridiculous that people get sent to jail over that stuff. Great thread though, thanks for sharing everyone.
posted by Hoopo at 4:25 PM on January 28, 2012

No post on prison chess should go without mentioning Stefan Zweig's unnerving masterpiece "The Royal Game".
posted by Skeptic at 6:39 AM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Fascinating. Thanks for posting.

Not Prison Chess, but reminded me of this exchange from The Wire.
D'Angelo Barksdale: Now look, check it, it's simple, it's simple. See this? This the kingpin, a'ight? And he the man. You get the other dude's king, you got the game. But he trying to get your king too, so you gotta protect it. Now, the king, he move one space any direction he damn choose, 'cause he's the king. Like this, this, this, a'ight? But he ain't got no hustle. But the rest of these motherfuckers on the team, they got his back. And they run so deep, he really ain't gotta do shit.
Preston 'Bodie' Broadus: Like your uncle.
D'Angelo Barksdale: Yeah, like my uncle. You see this? This the queen. She smart, she fast. She move any way she want, as far as she want. And she is the go-get-shit-done piece.
Wallace: Remind me of Stringer.
D'Angelo Barksdale: And this over here is the castle. Like the stash. It can move like this, and like this.
Wallace: Dog, stash don't move, man.
D'Angelo Barksdale: C'mon, yo, think. How many time we move the stash house this week? Right? And every time we move the stash, we gotta move a little muscle with it, right? To protect it.
Preston 'Bodie' Broadus: True, true, you right. All right, what about them little baldheaded bitches right there?
D'Angelo Barksdale: These right here, these are the pawns. They like the soldiers. They move like this, one space forward only. Except when they fight, then it's like this. And they like the front lines, they be out in the field.
Wallace: So how do you get to be the king?
D'Angelo Barksdale: It ain't like that. See, the king stay the king, a'ight? Everything stay who he is. Except for the pawns. Now, if the pawn make it all the way down to the other dude's side, he get to be queen. And like I said, the queen ain't no bitch. She got all the moves.
Preston 'Bodie' Broadus: A'ight, so if I make it to the other end, I win.
D'Angelo Barksdale: If you catch the other dude's king and trap it, then you win.
Preston 'Bodie' Broadus: A'ight, but if I make it to the end, I'm top dog.
D'Angelo Barksdale: Nah, yo, it ain't like that. Look, the pawns, man, in the game, they get capped quick. They be out the game early.
Preston 'Bodie' Broadus: Unless they some smart-ass pawns.
posted by vidur at 2:48 PM on January 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

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