Chess in Prison

In 1415, Charles d’Orleans (1391-1465), a French prince and father of Louis XII, was put in prison by the English after the battle of Agincourt.   He was imprisoned for 25 years.  During that time in captivity, he played chess and wrote poems with chess themes.

In 1576, Paolo Boi (1528-1598) was taken prisoner and sold as a slave to a Turk.  He gained his freedom back by teaching his master chess.

In 1879, James Mortimer (1833-1911), a chess player and journalist, went to prison for refusing to reveal the author of an allegedly libelous article.  Once inside prison, he taught his fellow inmates how to play chess.

Johannes Zukertort (1842-1888) was one of the strongest chess players in the world.  He was also a leading spokesman for prison reform and wrote on the subject.

Martin From (1828-1895), the Danish player who popularized 1.f4 e5, the From’s Gambit, was a prison inspector.

In 1916, a chess column appeared in a monthly magazine, written by inmates at Sing Sing State prison in New York.

In 1940, Menachem Begin (1913-1992), 6th Prime Minister of Israel,  was sent to prison by the Russians for allegedly spying.  While in prison, he played chess every day.  He said chess helped him keep his mental powers in shape.

In 1951, Rudolf Hess was allowed to play chess against his guards at Spandau Prison.

In 1955, San Quentin State Prison in California organized a chess club and edited a chess magazine, Chess Nuts,that lasted for two years.  Honorary editor was George Koltanowski.

In 1957, George Koltanowski gave a simultaneous exhibition at San Quentin prison.  He played 107 prisoners, winning 103, losing 1, and drawing 3.

In 1959, the West Virginia University chess club traveled to Moundsville, West Virginia to play the West Virginia Penitentiary inmates.  The inmates won the match.

In 1960, Bobby Fischer, age 17 and US chess champion, gave a simultaneous chess exhibition at Riker’s Island prison.  He defeated all 20 prisoners while 2,400 inmates watched the game.

In the early 1960s, the State Correctional Institute of Pittsburgh had a strong chess club called the Walled Knights.  Members of the Pittsburgh Chess Club used to regularly play matches against the Walled Knights.  Pittsburgh Chess Club member Bobby Dudley visited the prison several times and donated many chess books, magazines and equipment.

In the 1960s, Carl Flood, brother of baseball player curt Flood, was the prison champion at Leavenworth and McNeil Island, Washington.

In 1969, Claude Bloodgood (1937-2001) was sent to prison in Virginia for murdering his mother.  He had already been in and out of prison since 1962.  From prison, he organized a chess club and played thousands of chess games by mail and thousands of games with inmates.  At one time, the prison system paid for his postage stamps, so he was able to play as many as 2,000 correspondence games at a time (including me at one time).  In 1974, he escaped after receiving a furlough to play in a chess tournament.  We was recaptured a few days later.  While in prison, he played rated chess matches with fellow prisoners.  By 1996, his rating was 2702, the second-highest rated player in the USA.  He had manipulated the U.S. Chess Federation (USCF) rating system that was prone to “closed pool” ratings inflation.

In 1969, the World Junior Championship was held in an ancient debtor’s prison in Stockholm.

In 1972, a prisoner failed to return to Western Penitentiary from a chess match at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.  A week later, a second prisoner escaped after a chess tournament at Carnegie-Mellon.  The warden remarked, “I’m afraid we won’t be invited back to the university if this keeps up.”

In 1977, Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky, a Soviet computer specialist, was sent to prison for allegedly spying for the United States.  He spent 9 years in prison.  He said he played mental chess to keep his brain from degrading while he was in solitary confinement in Siberia.  As a child, he was a chess prodigy.

The U.S. Chess Federation gave free memberships and affiliations to prisoners through its prison chess program until 1979, when they suspended the 200 free memberships.

In January 1979, Patrick McKenna, a prisoner in Nevada, strangled his Las Vegas cellmate, Jack J. Nobles, after an argument over a chess game.  McKenna has been on death row in Nevada since 1979.

In the early 1980s, I participated with several other members of the Dayton Chess Club in Ohio in matches at the London Correctional Facility in Ohio.  We would sign in, take everything out of our pockets, and go through the metal detector.  We were escorted by guards and go through several metal doors that closed behind you.

In 1986, grandmaster Aleksander Wojtkiewicz (1963-2006) was sent to prison in Latvia for dodging the Soviet Army draft.  While in prison, he studied chess and found a novelty in the Sicilian Defense, Accelerated Dragon variation.  The new move was coined the “Prison Novelty.”

In 1988, The Grass Arena, the autobiography of John Healy, was published.  It was the autobiography of an alcoholic vagrant who found redemption in prison through chess.  He learned the game of chess from a fellow cellmate.  He recently wrote a new book, Coffee House Chess Tactics.

In September 1996, Heidi Fleiss, famous Hollywood madam, was sent to federal prison.  She spent the time in prison playing chess with some of the other inmates.  She was released from prison in 1998.

In November 1996, Grandmaster Alex Yermolinsky gave a simultaneous chess exhibition at a state prison near Pittsburgh.  He had just won the U.S. championship.   Yermolinsky played 20 games, winning 17, losing 2, and drawing 1.

In 2001, the Oregon Department of Prisons prohibited chess books and magazines in the prisons because it “contained code throughout.”  I guess they thought that algebraic notation was secret code.

In 2001, Christopher Newton murdered his cellmate, Jason Brewer, over a game of chess.  Brewer would resign his chess game against Newton every time a pawn was lost or the position looked bad.  Newton tried to tell him not to give up and play the game out, but Brewer refused.  After a month of playing chess and Brewer always resigning early without playing out the game, Newton finally had enough and strangled Brewer.

Since 2002, the Princeton University Chess Club had had an annual match with the New Jersey maximum security prison.  The New Jersey State Prison has 75 members and over 1,000 inmates of the 2,320 inmate population know how to play chess.

In 2002, ABC News Nightline featured a profile of Eugene Brown, who learned chess in prison.  When he got out he opened up a youth recreation center in Washington D.C., called the Chess House, and made his living by teaching chess.  He is Founder and CEO of The Big Chair Chess Club, a non-profit organization that teaches chess to inner-city children and adults.

In 2003, an inmate in Utah was prohibited from subscribing to a chess magazine because he was under “intensive management.”

In 2003, Earl Smith, the chaplain at San Quentin State Prison, played a chess match with Charles Manson.  Not sure who the winner was.

In 2006, the first Bulgarian national chess tournament for prisoners was held and won by the Varna Prison inmates.  The winners were awarded with television sets and sports equipment.  Inmates from all the prisons asked the Bulgarian Justice Minister if he could cut a few months off their sentences if they win a first place in the tournament.  The minister said he would consider it.

In 2007, former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov gave a simultaneous exhibition at the Krasnoyarsk prison in Russia.  He repeated the exhibition in 2009.

In 2008, two of Scotland’s worst killers, Zeesham ‘Crazy’ Shahid and Jamie ‘Baldy’ Bain, played chess in solitary confinement as they shout out moves to each other as they play on separate cells.

In 2010, a chess game between inmates at the Indian River County Jail in Florida led to a fight.  Christopher Brown was playing chess with another inmate in the cell block when Christopher O’Neal, who was watching the game, commented about the game on the other inmate’s behalf.  Brown told O’Neal to shut up, but O’Neal ignored him and continued to discuss the ongoing chess game.  The two then got into a fight.  It took several detention deputies to break up the flight.

Jude Acers (1944-  ), a chess master from Louisiana, has given over 100 chess simultaneous exhibitions in prisons throughout the years.

Every prison in California allows chess sets, but many chess clubs have been eliminated due to political interest groups.

There are at least 40 prisons nationwide that have chess clubs affiliated with the USCF.

For an article on chess players being arrested, see