Rook takes pawn…
Bishop takes rook…
San Quentin loves chess. Even deep in the Security Housing Units, where San Quentin men live in solitary confinement, residents build makeshift chess sets. Here, pieces made out of toilet tissue that resembles papier maché. Figurines slide across recycled lunch boxes with numbered checkerboard squares penciled in. In the hole, life is eerily quiet: the hustle and bustle of the mainstream housing units is nowhere to be found in its highly surveilled corridors. Walk down a hallway and you can hear the chorus of numbers being yelled out of steel doors signaling a player’s move. The game of chess for some has become synonymous with how one lives their life — what moves they make. Certain moves can be more costly than others. San Quentin plays chess everywhere from the recreational yard to the housing units, faces deep in concentration as the incarcerated residents study their various boards. Chess in prison is more than a mental distraction; it’s a community of prisoners reflecting on life and rehabilitation. The game takes a patience and focus which most of us lacked before coming to jail.
“You have some people that take a long time to move, and you have to allow them that space,” Reginald “Reggie” Thorpe says on being a part of this informal chess club. “The key is to have discipline and not let your mind wonder, or you will lose your own strategy.”
Thorpe learned chess from his mother at the tender age of 5. “That was one of the better moments of my childhood, before my mother became an addict,” he says, sighing. “But that started my curiosity—the way different pieces moved. It became my passion to solve puzzles.”
In his early life, Thorpe saw himself as a Bishop as he tried to navigate the underworld. “I was doing things at an angle, depending on the situation,” he says. “I wasn’t always the one to make the first move. But I wanted to be the one who won no matter what.”
Now, the game has become more than a hobby for Thorpe — it’s about solving the puzzle of his life. “My crime involved violence and rage,” he says.
“After I started identifying my triggers and character defects, chess helped me examine my emotions and how I deal with my wins and losses.” The game taught him to be mindful, he says, and that it doesn’t matter if he wins or loses.
Similarly, Scott O’Connor’s first introduction to the game was playing against his father in a prison visiting room at the age of nine. “As soon as that first piece moves, the whole world disappears for me,” O’Conner says. While running the streets and being involved in criminal activity, O’Conner patterned himself as a Knight. “I was moving from state to state, doing things I thought I needed to do to survive,” he says. “Now, I see myself as a pawn, aspiring to get across the chessboard of life to grow into my true noble form.” (In the rules of chess, if a pawn reaches the other side of the board a player can select any piece, such as the powerful Queen or Rook, to add to the board.)
Pablo Ramirez’s journey to chess started in prison as he was trying to learn English. “Life in Mexico was a challenge,” he remembers. “I didn’t have a trade to find a good job with good pay. I didn’t have the discipline to learn.” Learning chess along with English “taught me to face challenges and how to think a couple of moves ahead,” he says. That allowed him to dig deep “and accept responsibility for the crime
I committed. Chess is about learning to overcome obstacles and for me it’s about being accountable for my actions.”
And chess teaches its players to regulate their emotions, since games can often end in defeats, failures and frustration—just like life in the free world. “Chess teaches you how to cope with adversity rather than have a meltdown,” reflects O’Conner. If you’re playing Black or White, if you have the first move or start on defense, “What matters is that you think about your next move,” he says, “because it may determine where you are going in life.”
by Jad Salen and Marcus Henderson