Damion Coppedge: Prison, Poetry, Buddhism and Chess

by Alexey Root
1/1/2021 – When Damion Coppedge was in prison for manslaughter, he played chess, wrote poetry, and practiced Buddhism. From prison, he sent $25 to Ugandan chess player Phiona Mutesi, which enabled her coach to open Mutesi’s first bank account. Free since 2019, Coppedge creates videos about chess, the game that he loves.

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22 years a prisoner

When Damion Coppedge was 8 years old, his dad taught him chess. Coppedge’s nickname "Focus" came from chess. Coppedge was playing chess, outside in the rain. He was so focused on the game that he didn’t hear his friends calling him.

When he was 21, he played with a loaded gun. His accidental discharge of that firearm killed his best friend. Convicted of manslaughter in 1998, and also counting his time in jail waiting for that conviction, Coppedge was incarcerated for 22 years.

While in prison, having read about her in ESPN magazine, he sent Phiona Mutesi $25, three chess books, and an encouraging letter. Coppedge’s letter appears in Tim Crothers’ book, The Queen of Katwe

In December of 2020, out of prison since July 31, 2019, Coppedge contacted Alexey Root via Facebook Messenger and email. Their correspondence led to this co-authored article.

Transcending the cell

Coppedge spent 12-14 months of his incarceration in a Special Housing Unit (SHU). Each cell is about 100 square feet and each prisoner is confined in his cell for 23 hours a day. In 2019, The Altamont Enterprise, an Albany, New York, news outlet, editorialized:

It takes a rare person, like Damion Coppedge, to come out of an SHU sanction with his humanity in tact [sic]. It looks to us like the things that sustained Coppedge in prison — a session where he was first introduced to Buddhism, mail that allowed him to play chess, a radio through which he heard poetry — are what will make him a productive member of society now that he is out of prison.

Coppedge emailed Root, "I used to read Chess Life in prison. I even took a lot of the puzzles out of Andrew Soltis’ column and made my own personal chess tactics notebook. One of my favorite puzzles was the one from Rossolimo-Reissman, Puerto Rico 1967.

 

White won with 22.Nf6+ Kh8 23.Qg6!! Qc2 24.Rh3 1-0.

The rook lift was just so brand new to me. I was mesmerized." In addition to reading chess magazines, Coppedge also played chess by mail.

The Altamont Enterprise reported:

Coppedge also transcended his cell by playing chess. The late Peter Henner, a lawyer and activist from Clarksville who wrote a chess column for The Enterprise, played chess through the mail with Coppedge, and wrote about it. "Focus has demonstrated a thorough knowledge of the openings, imaginative and creative play, and a good fighting spirit," wrote Henner of Coppedge.

The linked column by Henner, from 2013, gives an annotated game by Coppedge against another inmate, Mr. Foots. This podcast features some of Coppedge’s poetry.

Interview

Alexey Root: Tell me about the importance of poetry and Buddhism to you, both in prison and now. 

Damion Coppedge: Poetry is the light by which the human imagination allows its potential to shine upon other human beings, in hopes that they will see their lights too and shine brightly. Poetry uses the imagination to see beyond the immediate reality of one’s condition or circumstance, which creates hope. Hope is the beacon of light which allowed me to make it through the dark, tunnel-like experience of being imprisoned.

Damion Coppedge

Buddhism is a way to look at our lives through how we are affected by our attachments. In Buddhist philosophy, the attachment to things outside of ourselves, in hopes of achieving happiness, can cause suffering. Buddhist philosophy first and foremost brought me the practice of meditation, which has been a very powerful tool inside and outside of prison. Meditation helps me look at life from many different angles and to try to find that place of equanimity where there is balance between thought and action.

Alexey Root: How did you and Mr. Foots play chess, from your solitary-confinement cells?

Damion Coppedge: I met Mr. Foots while in solitary confinement. We saw each other during the one hour a day of recreation, where we could exchange chess moves. We also played chess through calling out moves while in our cells, a common method at SHU. The chess boards are numbered like a checkerboard, 1 through 64, starting on a1. So, 1. e4 would be "12 to 28," as most of the prisoners did not know algebraic notation.

The moves are called out through the cell bars to your opponent a few cells away. Sometimes, a heated game is followed by other prisoners who have the same numbered boards, often made from simple paper and pencil. It can be very quiet in solitary confinement at Southport Correctional Facility, when a good game is being played and followed by other prisoners.

Alexey Root: How did you get copies of Chess Life? What other chess material did you study in prison?

Damion Coppedge: My first copies of Chess Life were from the prison library. Then I subscribed by saving my money earned from working in the prison cafeteria. Sometimes, my uncle would send me some money and then I would buy chess books from the Chess Life catalog.

I remember purchasing Jeremy Silman’s How To Reassess Your Chess. It really opened my eyes. Especially when he writes about imbalances, motifs for combinations, the open king, undefended pieces, and inadequately-defended pieces. Such a beautiful book; I still swear by it today as a chess masterpiece.

Alexey Root: How did you get the $25 to send to Phiona Mutesi? 

Damion Coppedge: As I remember, that money was a birthday gift from my sister. After reading the ESPN article on Phiona, I decided that it would be nice to try and help her become successful at chess.

Alexey Root: What job do you have now?

Damion Coppedge: I work at Architectural Grille in Brooklyn, a metal factory that has a history going back to 1949.

Chess After Prison

While Coppedge earned a correspondence rating of 1563 in prison, he could not play over-the-board rated chess then. Because of the pandemic, he can’t play over-the-board rated games now either. So, he plays online. On December 17, Coppedge messaged Root, "I’m starting to really like the Vienna. I just made 2000 on lichess 10 min. rapid."

Damion Coppedge with GM Nicolas de T. Checa, Marshall Chess Club, October 2019

Coppedge is also creating chess videos for his YouTube channel, using his cell phone on a tripod. He can’t get the angle wide enough to show the board and his face at the same time. He has 32 subscribers, as of December 28, 2020. On December 21, Root told Coppedge that he should create a YouTube video more like this one, by National Master Caleb Denby, which shows a two-dimensional board and the presenter’s face. That video has over 10,000 views on the Saint Louis Chess Club channel, which has 324,000 subscribers. Coppedge replied, "I think Caleb uses more than an iPhone."

Maybe Coppedge could get advice or equipment for improving his YouTube videos, which might lead to more subscribers. Perhaps a popular YouTube chess channel could invite Coppedge on for a guest spot. Coppedge would also love to learn how to stream on Twitch. He is also on Instagram. Coppedge’s wish for 2021? "I just wish there was a way I could get paid for doing what I love (chess activities)." Root hopes that someone will be as generous with Coppedge as he was with Mutesi, when he was in prison.

Links

Chess in prisons makes a difference


Alexey was the 1989 U.S. Women's Chess Champion and is a Woman International Master. She earned her bachelor’s degree in History at the University of Puget Sound and her doctoral degree in Education at The University of California, Los Angeles. She has been a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at UT Dallas since 1999 and is a prolific author.
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Alexey Root Alexey Root 1/2/2021 01:57
Thanks @Frits Fritschy for your comments on sentencing guidelines. Coppedge's convictions are public record. When co-authoring this article, Coppedge wrote about the main charge against him, manslaughter. However, to your point, Coppedge acquired another felony conviction while incarcerated, which added to his time in prison. Thanks for reading and for the critique!
Logos Logos 1/1/2021 11:43
@Frits Fritschy
Thanks for the comment. I read the article and thought that 22 years for an accident was ridiculous - even for American standards.

@Alexey Root: This was an interesting article regardless - thank you.
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 1/1/2021 10:27
Firstly, I wish Mr. Coppedge all the best; he has done time for whatever he has done. I also acknowledge that he may have (or, statistically, has) done more time because of being a black US citizen. And that prison sentences in the US are very harsh.
However, from a journalistic point of view I have some problems with this article.
"When he was 21, he played with a loaded gun. His accidental discharge of that firearm killed his best friend." That is involuntary manslaughter: extreme recklessness leading to the death of another person without intention to do harm. Sentences can get tougher when, for instance, these acts are committed in the process of committing another crime, or when the victim is a child or another vulnerable person, or a policeman, neither of which seem to be the case here. Even in Texas, which doesn't differentiate between unvoluntary and voluntary manslaughter, the maximum sentence is 20 Years. If Mr. Coppedge was convicted in the state of New York (where he did time), he could have been sentenced from 3 to 15 years, not 22. What made the judge decide to give him a sentence that must be, if not over, then close to the maximum sentence?
The article seems to imply that Mr. Coppedge was unjustly treated (also see the part on solitary confinement). In that case, you should bring evidence of that. If that evidence doesn't exist, stick to the plain facts: he committed a serious crime, but did his time - and made the best of it. Or say Mr. Coppedge denies (part of) the facts, but you are not sure who is right.
Now you make it into a slightly tearjerking story, that doesn't do justice to either Mr. Coppedge or his victim.
jaberwocky jaberwocky 1/1/2021 09:36
Chess
pieces dance
in changing patterns
drama, intrigue and mystery
for those who know
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