Chess in Prison

Endgame Fundamentals…Sort of

By Donny Gray

Psssst. Keep this to yourself. Don’t tell anyone but this article is not about endings! Well, I guess it technically is since I DO talk about a queen and king mate at the end. So maybe I won’t get in trouble with the authorities when they read this.

My first rated tournament was the 1973 Arkansas Championship held that year in Little Rock, Arkansas. My score was 2.5 out of 5 and I came out of it with my first rating, 1226!! Fifteen years later my rating went over 2200 and I was awarded the National Master certificate. In addition to my tournament play, I write a chess column on endings for the Georgia Chess Association, as you can plainly see, and I have taught chess professionally for almost 30 years. My students have been from 4 to 80 years of age, beginners to A Class, and everything in between.

In all of my experience in tournaments and teaching I have heard it all about chess. Most think it is only for the very smart and nerds. Some think they could never learn and just don’t try. Some think it is like checkers! Many times I have heard the statement, “I have never lost in chess”!!

Of course all of that is wrong. Especially someone saying they have never lost. Riiiiiiight! If it is true then you have never played much and apparently, perhaps, only against your little brother.

If I was to go to a large chess tournament and take a survey of everyone’s profession you would indeed find doctors, lawyers, college professors, and other extremely traditionally “smart” folks. But you would also find just as many fast food workers, janitors, construction workers, secretaries, and just about any other profession under the sun. There is no one group that stands out above the rest. It is just normal folks. Normal except they are very competitive and find chess to be a great outlet for this personality trait. Usually, for anyone that has a great desire to succeed and is competitive, I can turn them into a pretty decent chess player. It does not matter what their IQ might be or their age.

In all my years of chess playing and instruction I have acquired many stories of all kinds to tell. My tournament reports are well liked by many folks. But, if I had to pick the one story that stands out above all the rest, it would be my experience with chess instruction at a boy’s prison. Yes, you heard right. A prison!

The Augusta YDC (Youth Detention Center) houses hard core juvenile criminals. Several years ago I read an article about prison chess and got the idea that maybe I could do the same at the YDC. At the time it was not run by the state of Georgia but a company called Unique Solutions. They had won the contract to maintain the center. Employees were either guards, teachers, administrators, or doctors of all kinds.

I rounded up much information and studies about how chess can expands critical thinking and improve concentration. With chess you learn how to think instead of just memorize, which is usually what happens at schools. Many studies show that kids taught chess will outperform others that just play video games. My manila envelope I mailed to the president of Unique Solutions was quite thick. To my disbelief I got a call from him to come discuss my proposal! He had talked it over with all the doctors and every one of them said that it would be a complete waste of time. Most deemed these kids as uncontrollable, unable to learn, or not smart enough. The president himself, however, thought it was worth a try and he outvoted everyone else. So, I was hired to teach chess for about twenty hours a week, mostly on the weekend.

At first I had countless doctors and teachers come by my chess area and tell me I was wasting my time. They told me of horror stories how their own classrooms were absolute nightmares and that I would soon be realizing the truth.

Many of the boys thought they knew how to play chess. But after a few simuls they quickly realized they knew very little. So I began lessons. Some one-on-one lessons and others in group lessons. It was up to me to decide how to spend my chess time with them. We also had regular chess club meetings. Never did I ask any of the boys what they had done to land them in the YDC. It was none of my business and, to tell you the truth, I did not want to know. My purpose was to teach chess to anyone that wanted to learn.

We had mini tournaments and matches.  I began an in-house rating system for them so they could have and achieve goals in chess. Soon my chess classes were well attended. They also soon began to know what I expected from them. There was no cursing, fighting, or misbehaving in Mr. Gray’s chess room. Anytime a new boy would attend and begin cursing or whatever, I would not have to say a word. The others would castigate the newbie immediately saying that if he did not stop it would ruin chess for all of them. Some would not comply and out the door I kicked them.

After about 6 months we held a contest with some of my students against the doctors and teachers. “My boys” won with ease! The doctors and teachers were astounded. Soon they, too, started coming by my chess room and would be amazed at the orderly and well-behaved classroom. The same kids that terrorized the other classrooms were model citizens in mine.

Many of the boys told me on several occasions that chess had helped them overcome feelings of inadequacies and self worth. All their lives they had been told they could not do anything other than a life of crime, yet here they were doing something others considered intellectual.

After about two years there was talk of making my chess instruction a full time position. Unfortunately it was also about this time that the state decided to take over the center. Gone were the days of trying to help the kids in extra areas like chess. Just guarding them took precedence and my chess teaching at the center was terminated.

Two particular boys stand out about my two years there. One concerned a boy that was released and another was about a mildly retarded boy that was a “resident” there.

The boy that was released had an article in an Atlanta newspaper written about him discussing how well he was doing now that he had been released. He stated in his interview how chess was one of the main reasons that he was doing so well, as it gave him self respect and confidence to tackle hard things. Chess taught him to not give up.

The mildly retarded boy had a difficult time in my chess meetings, but attended regularly. After working with him for about 6 months he learned how to checkmate with a queen and king without help. His final test was against one of the doctors. You would have thought he had won the lottery he was so happy.


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