Chess – a matter of life and death

2/21/2003 – It wasn't Karpov, Kasparov or Deep Blue, but murderers, arsonists and other felons, all facing off against two inky-haired students, the top-rated players in Princeton University's chess club. The felons were all inmates at New Jersey State Prison, a maximum-security facility that houses the state's death row – and a thriving chess club of its own. Read about it in this NYT article.

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The game is chess, the opponents are felons

[Excerpts]

Though one associates chess clubs with leafy campuses or the local high school cafeteria, the club that convenes here on Thursday nights meets behind bars. Prison officials say that even outside the club, chess is a mainstay of life in prison, where video games and other hand-held devices are banned. Craig Haywood, the prison's acting supervisor of recreation, said he issues 50 to 60 chessboards a week, and the game is even more popular than checkers.

Today's single-game match was held in the prison's lime-green gym, which was rimmed with guards. The chessboards were laid out on two sets of tables, each arranged in a horseshoe shape. Brandon Ashe, 20, a Princeton junior, played half of the 34 inmates, moving a chess piece and then going to the next board until he had made his way around the table, then starting again. Ian Prevost, 19, a sophomore, played the other half.

Both students were nervous — not, they said, from entering a prison for the first time but because they were unsure of their opponents' abilities and felt inexperienced playing so many people at once. The prisoners, by contrast, were confident, some of them bordering on bluster. Sylvester Livingston, 38 and serving 25 years to life for aggravated assault, said he played chess "because if you make the mistake you can fix it." He thought he might have a chance. But Anthony Nickels, 34, predicted victory. "I'm going to keep attacking," said Mr. Nickels, who is serving 30 years for murder. "That's my strategy."

Before long [everybody was] congregated around Naifra Boyer, 46, a murderer who has been in jail most of his adult life. Mr. Boyer had control of the middle of the board against Mr. Prevost. After Mr. Ashe had beaten all his competition, and with the matches well into their third hour, he took over half of Mr. Prevost's remaining opponents. Finally, after about four hours, to much hollering and high-fiving, Mr. Boyer beat Mr. Ashe.

"Chess is a game of life and death," Mr. Boyer declared. "The students," he said, "were being too aggressive with me. They weren't watching their backs."

Mr. Boyer asked the guards if he could begin touring colleges playing chess, promising to behave — a proposal that drew laughter all around.

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