NJ inmates vs. Princeton students: Prison chess

By: AP
By: AP

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- David Wang is a young man who's clearly going places. The Princeton University sophomore is gifted with a brilliant mind, a movie-star smile and an understated self-confidence.

Kelvin Washington is a middle-aged man who's not going anywhere for the next 44 years. He's a career criminal who has spent 29 years behind bars for a string of robberies and burglaries.

An unlikely pairing, the two men went head to head Wednesday at the New Jersey State Prison, a maximum-security lockup. Their battlefield: a chess board.

In an unusual cultural exchange program that began six years ago, Princeton students travel to the prison in Trenton, 16 miles from their Ivy League campus, to play chess with the inmates.

"When I heard about this opportunity, I jumped at it," said Wang, who has competed three times in worldwide chess tournaments, placing as high as 30th.

Prisons across the nation have thriving chess clubs. Some invite outsiders for matches behind bars. The chess club at the New Jersey State Prison has 75 members, including inmates serving life sentences for murder, robbery and other heinous crimes.

Washington, 52, is six years into a 50-year term for a gas station stickup. Chess offers him an escape from prison - short of actually breaking out.

"It eases my mind off the burden of fighting for my life," he said. "It relaxes me and transports me to another place momentarily. As soon as it's over, it's back to business as usual."

That involves being awakened by corrections officers at 6 a.m., filing into a dining hall for breakfast and checking a log book to see whether he has been granted a pass to go to the law library or the exercise room. If not, it's back into the cell.

The numbing routine may help explain the popularity of prison chess.

"For one short, sweet moment, I get to be in charge and make my own decisions," he said. "I get to decide where to move or what not to do."

Washington and other inmates see parallels in chess and their daily lives.

"It gives me patience," he said. "Sometimes you see something on the board and you want to jump on it, when maybe it's best to hold off for a minute and see what's developing around you before you just jump out and take it."

Each year, one or two inmates defeat a Princeton visitor. But on Wednesday, 12 of the 46 inmates prevailed - more winners than in the five previous years combined.

"I feel great, baby!" exulted Alonzo Hill, breaking into dance worthy of an NFL touchdown celebration after defeating Atanas Petkov, a Princeton student from Bulgaria. "He got the Princeton shirt on: He the Princeton dude, and I beat him! I did good!"

Hill, 39, is serving five consecutive life terms for his role in a carjacking murder in which a woman who owned a clothing store was shot in the back of the head.

"I just defended, just defended," Hill said. "He wanted me to make a mistake, but I defended it to the end, baby."

The inmates were seated at long folding tables covered by new plastic tablecloths inside the prison's spacious gymnasium. The games were played on cardboard chess boards with plastic pieces.

Each of the students played as many as nine inmates simultaneously, quickly moving down the line, making moves at each board, leaving the inmates several minutes to plot their next moves.

Michael McCall, seven years into a 45-year sentence for murder, held off Wang for nearly two hours before succumbing to a checkmate.

"I like strategizing; it's like life situations," McCall said. "You have to think about what you do. Everything you do should be calculated. We all make mistakes, but we still need to be thinking."

When the three-hour session was over, Wang returned to campus to pursue his dream of a medical career.

"My goal is to maybe conquer a disease that's creating havoc and suffering in the world," he said.

Washington, after dropping his match, went back to his cell. His goal is simply to get back home one day.

"The tiniest little things you enjoy are the things I miss: Getting up to buy the newspaper in the morning while the wife and kids are asleep, sitting down in my easy chair while the downstairs smells of coffee perking, and I look out into the darkness at the stars. I miss that."

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