Strong inmate players play for stamps

Steinitz - Chigorin   Havana 1892 White to move and mate in 6 moves

Solution: 24. R:h7+ K:h7 25. Qh1+ Kg7 26. Bh6+ Kf6 27. Qh4+ Ke5 28. Q:d4+ Kf5 29. Qf4 mate  

Alexis de Toqueville is best known for his classic work, Democracy in America, which was published in 1835 after his two-year tour of the United States. Toqueville had persuaded the French government to send him to the United States on the pretext that he was going to study American methods of handling convicted criminals. He is reported to have said that the measurement of a society is the nature of its prisons.

It would be interesting to see what Toqueville would say about the Special Housing Units of New York State correctional facilities. About 5,000 inmates are locked in cells approximately 100 square feet, 23 hours a day, and are allowed out only for “recreation” in a small pen.

Although the inmates can communicate with other inmates by yelling across the cellblock, they are not permitted to participate in any programs, and access to the outside world is severely limited. Some of the inmates are sent to SHU for months, if not years; many of them have serious mental health problems, or develop them as a result of the stress of the solitary confinement.

Nevertheless, some inmates in SHU, known as “the Box,” play chess, usually for postage stamps as they are not permitted access to money. Although few, if any, inmates have ever played in formally recognized tournaments, the quality of play can be surprisingly strong. Some players demonstrate a keen sense of tactics, even though, at times, their knowledge of theory may be weak.

Some years ago, I played a correspondence game against an inmate whom I was advising on legal matters. Although he was not very good, he did persuade me to play a game against another inmate, Damian Coppedge, who goes by the name of Focus, who is a particularly interesting man and a very good player.

Focus was convicted of manslaughter in 1998, at the age of 21, and he is presently serving 19 to 22 years. In prison, he has become a committed Buddhist and an accomplished writer and poet.

Over the last two years, we have been playing four games: Although I have won two of them, and will almost certainly win a third, all of the games have been hard-fought, and Focus has demonstrated a thorough knowledge of the openings, imaginative and creative play, and a good fighting spirit. The fourth game, which is now in its 31st move, is an extremely complicated tactical game, and it is by no means clear who is winning. 

Focus was sent to the SHU in the Southport Correctional Facility as the result of a fight with another inmate, which he felt he could not avoid. Southport is one of New York State’s two “super max” facilities; all of the inmates are in SHU.

Apparently, despite the disparateness of the inmate’s situations, there is still an active chess culture. Focus sent me two games that he played against another inmate — one that he won and one that he lost — and a third game, against an inmate named Foots, who introduced himself by asking, “Do you know anything about chess?” This was followed by a boast that he would “crush” Focus in any book games.

Mr. Foots claimed to have been a very successful player in New York City’s Washington Square Park and to have memorized the standard reference work, Modern Chess Openings.

Focus – Foots,

Southport C.F.

October 6, 2013 

1.e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 de 4. N:e4 Nd7 5. Bd3 Ngf6 6. Ng5 e6 7. N1f3 Bd6 8. Qe2  h6 9. Ne4 N:e4 10. Q:e4  Nf6 11.Qe2 c5 12. dc B:c5 13. Bd2 Qb6 14. O-O-O. 

All of the moves up to now have been played by strong players, and the game is still within Houdini’s book lines: somewhat remarkable for a game played between two inmates without formal chess training.

Now Houdini indicates at least four master games with 14.. Bd7 15. Ne5, and White has a small advantage. However, Mr. Foots wisecracked, “Let me gobble up this pawn you don’t want,” and played 14..B:f2?. This is a mistake. 15 Rhf1 Bc5. White’s lead in development and open lines now give him a significant advantage, even a pawn behind.  

16. Bb5+? and Focus gives it away. 16 Ne5 would have maintained White’s advantage 16.. Bd7 17. B:d7 N:d7.

Houdini says the position is equal, but now Focus tries an unsound sacrifice, which should have lost.  18 Ba5?  Q:a5  19. R:d7 K:d7 20 N:e5+. This kind of hyper-aggressive chess is not unusual for prison chess — sometimes, as here,  it actually works. If 20.. Kc8, 21 N:f7 Rf8 22. Q:e6+ Kb8, White  is down a Rook for a pawn and could resign, but Mr. Foots played 20..Ke8. and lost after  21. N:f7 Rf8? (Kd7 or Ke7 would have kept the game going) 22. Q:e6+  Be7 23. Nd6+ Kd8 24. R:f8+ B:f8 25 N:b7+ Resigns.

Focus won 10 stamps, and the satisfaction of shutting up someone he described as “full of bombastic b.s.”

Club championships

The three largest local chess clubs — Albany, Schenectady, and Saratoga — have all commenced their championship tournaments.

Thirteen players are competing in Schenectady, which will be directed by Phil Sells, including former champions Carl Adamec and John Phillips. Two of the participants from last year, Carlos Varela and Zachary Calderon, are now established Class A players, and are legitimate contenders, along with Jon Leisner, Mike Mockler, and myself.

Albany, like Schenectady, has adopted a round-robin format for its 16-player tournament. The highest rated player is 2012 champion Dean Howard, an Expert who will be challenged by seven A players: last year’s co-champion Mockler, Gordon Magat, John Jones, Tim Wright, John Lack, new member Jeremy Berman, and myself, as well tournament director Glen Perry, whose rating is now just below the Class A threshold at 1782.  The Albany tournament also features two new unrated players, Mahmoud Ramadan and Will Stephenson.

The Saratoga championship will be a double round-robin tournament with seven players, including defending Champion Jonathan Feinberg, last year, Schenectady Champion David Finnerman (who could not play in the Schenectady championship this year due to scheduling conflicts), Gary Farrell, Glen Gausewitz, Bill Little, Josh Kuperman, and David Connors.

This week’s problem

Wilhelm (later William) Steinitz (1836 -1900) was the first undisputed world champion, winning the title either in 1866 against Adolph Anderssen or in 1886 against Johannes Zuckertort, before losing it to Emmanuel Lasker in 1894.

He took breaks from competitive chess, and his career as a chess journalist was sometimes marked by controversy due to his bluntness, but he made a modest living as a chess professional, both before and after he moved to the United States in 1883.

He played two matches for the World Championship against the Russian Mikhail Chigorin in Havana, in 1889 and again in 1892. One of the more famous games of the second match is the 4th game, where Steinitz has an obvious forced mate after a hard to find first move.