Corrections or additions?
This articles by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the November 3,
2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Check and Checkmate: Chess in Prison
Here’s a trick question: Which of the following items does not belong
in the list: prescription drug insurance, Senatorial candidate, Ivy
League college, chess, maximum security prison?
The answer is "none of the above."
All of the terms converge when Ian Prevost ’05, Samson Benen ’07, and
Aaron Pixton ’08, members of the Princeton University chess team,
confront 50 inmates of New Jersey State Prison in a tournament at the
maximum security facility in Trenton on Friday, November 5. BeneCard,
a Lawrenceville firm that administers prescription and vision
insurance, sponsors the match. Douglas Forrester, who lost a Senate
race to Frank Lautenberg in 2002, founded the firm in 1990.
Chess is just one of the zigs and zags in Forrester’s unconventional
multi-tasking life. A Harvard scholarship student, majoring in
philosophy and government, he simultaneously worked for the
Massachusetts legislature. While attending Princeton Theological
Seminary, where he earned a master’s degree in theology and politics
in 1983, he worked as a consultant for the New Jersey Department of
Environmental Protection, monitoring small parks throughout the state.
From 1984 to 1990, when he left government to found BeneCard, he was
director of the state’s Division of Pensions under Governor Tom Kean.
Shortly after he founded BeneCard, Forrester, a West Windsor resident,
developed an enhanced interest in chess. Hired as a consultant by
Somerset Actuarial Science, now part of Aon, Forrester teamed up
professionally with Somerset’s John Marshall, a longtime chess player.
"We traveled together, and played chess in our free time," says
Marshall. Marshall joined BeneCard as chief actuary in the mid 1990s
and has become the chief chess honcho at the firm. In a telephone
interview from his BeneCard office, Marshall says, "Forrester is a
good chess player. He is close to a master’s level. I am, too." To
become a chess master it is necessary to earn 2200 rating points at
events sponsored by the U. S. Chess Federation.
The BeneCard-chess-university-prison axis grew out of a business trip.
"Doug and I once went to New Orleans together for business," Marshall
says. "I remembered Jude Acers, an eccentric master chess player who
wore a red beret and tie-died T-shirts. He had a table in the French
quarter and played for $5 a game. I wondered if he was still there. He
was. We took him to dinner and invited him to come to New Jersey to do
exhibitions at schools and prisons, and with friends and clients. A
friend of Doug’s was the head state prison psychologist. She thought
it was a great idea to have Acers play prisoners."
Acers came to the prison in 2001 to play interested inmates. One of
his competitors beat him, and one played him to a draw. When Acers
became unavailable to play in the prison, Marshall recruited the
Princeton Chess Club, and in 2003 started turning the encounter into a
semi-annual event. (So that BeneCard’s chess activities could not be
turned into something political, the tournaments were put on hold
during Forrester’s 2002 Senate campaign). "Doug started the
tournament," Marshall says. "I’m just running with it."
Supporting the Princeton v. Prison chess matches brings BeneCard
favorable media coverage. Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, and
cable network ESPN all have shown interest in the story. BeneCard
donates books and chess clocks to both the prison and the Princeton
Chess Club, and after the tournament the firm invites Princeton
players to a restaurant dinner. (Prison players are not permitted to
leave the premises.) "It costs about $1,500 or $2,000 at each
tournament for chess equipment, books, and taking the kids out,"
Marshall says. "Nothing that will break the bank."
Princeton’s current trio of chess delegates to the State Prison for
the upcoming contest consists of two veterans and one newcomer. Senior
Ian Prevost and sophomore Samson Benen have played in the tournament
before. Freshman Aaron Pixton competes for the first time. "Ian
Prevost played since the beginning of the tournament," Marshall says.
"We hired him as a summer intern and he did a good job."
Benen, who played the winner of a 32-person field of chess competitors
at the prison, was featured in a Sports Illustrated story in May.
Newcomer Pixton, the highest rated player on the Princeton team, has
won national and international mathematics Olympiads. With 2460 rating
points, he impressively surpasses the 2200 needed to qualify as a
master. Gary Kasparov, the world’s highest ranking chess master, has
2800 rating points, Marshall points out.
Information about the prison champions is less easy to come by. Some
of the New Jersey State Prison competitors demur when asked the basis
for their convictions. But last year the New York Times reported that
one of the chessplaying inmates, who was serving 25 years to life for
aggravated assault, said chess was his game "because if you make the
mistake you can fix it." An inmate who won against the students,
46-year-old murderer Naifra Boyer, was quoted as saying, "Chess is a
game of life and death. The students were being too aggressive with
me. They weren’t watching their backs."
Chess is a high-profile sport at the site. "Chess delivers
unprecedented benefits to our population in terms of enhancing life
skills," said Commissioner Devon Brown in a press release. "It teaches
its players to think ahead, to recognize traps, and avoid costly
mistakes. Moreover, it imparts a healthy sense of gamesmanship, the
joy of winning, or the honor of losing with grace. Therefore, we are
extremely fortunate to have the learned champions from Princeton agree
to participate in our chess program."
The prison’s supervisor of recreation issues 50 to 60 chess boards a
week in a world where video games and other hand-held devices are
prohibited. The Thursday night chess club attracts ardent members. For
the Princeton-State Prison tournament in November, 2003, 102 inmates
signed up for 55 spots.
"It’s a strange atmosphere in prison," Marshall says. "Most of the
prisoners are in there for murder. At the tournament that Sports
Illustrated covered, prisoners watched and were very focused and I was
watching with them. Suddenly I feel a hand on the back of my neck; it
made me uneasy. Then a prisoner says, ‘I just saw your collar was
"Some of the prisoners come back for more than one tournament,"
Marshall says. "We get to know them when we see them every six months.
It’s kind of a reunion. It shows how chess transcends social strata."
"We’re all chess players," Marshall says. "That’s the common ground.
For these four hours [when the tournament takes place] inmates forget
that they’re inmates. The prisoners range in age from their 20s to
their 60s. They talk with the Princeton guys. We know them by name.
It’s like playing chess in a park. From a sociological point of view,
the atmosphere is a phenomenon. Normally, a prison is loud and rowdy.
During the chess tournament people are polite. They’re going over
games and talking chess."
"I was surprised at the quality of prison chess," Marshall says. "The
prisoners are very good. They’re not losing in 10 moves. They put up a
good fight. They have a lot of time to study."
Yet, the tournament assumes that university will vanquish prison, and
the assumption seems justified. The playing field is not level. No one
expects three prisoners to take on 50 university players.
The simultaneous play of the Princeton vs. Prison tournament follows a
pattern typical when challengers take on a normally invincible player.
Each challenger sits in front of a chess board. The master player
makes the rounds, judging quickly which move to make at each board.
When a challenger loses, the master player no longer stops at his
"As the [challengers] lose, there are fewer boards," Marshall
observes, "and the prisoners have less time to make moves. That’s when
they make mistakes."
"Chess is an analytical game," Marshall says. "Just about anybody can
play once you learn it. The moves are not that difficult. You can
enjoy it at different levels."
Born in Ridgewood in 1952, Marshall remembers playing chess at age
five with his twin brother. He was the only family member who pursued
the game. "I didn’t play much until 1972, when the great popularity of
chess began." That was the year when the eccentric American Bobby
Fischer defeated defending world champion Boris Spassky in Reykjavik
and made headlines in the Cold War.
At the time Marshall was a psychology major at Illinois’ Wheaton
College, which arranged for its students to play inmates of nearby
Joliet Penitentiary. Now Marshall fantasizes about the possibility of
Fischer’s visiting New Jersey State Prison.
Marshall says that he stumbled into actuarial work. He had grazed the
top of the SAT score for mathematical aptitude, but took little formal
mathematics training. After a summer job at an actuarial firm, he
passed the 10-component examination of the Society of Actuaries in
seven years. He calls the exams the most demanding requirement for
entering a profession. His quick explanation of actuarial work:
"Actuaries determine the financial consequences of future events."
As a respite from actuarial work Marshall recommends chess. "Chess,"
he says, "is very relaxing. It actually clears the mind after a long
day. It can really refresh you."
Moreover, says Marshall, chess is more than entertainment. "The
qualities that go into improving chess are the same things that
improve life, and come into play in business. You have to think
logically and think ahead. You have to look at various options and
make the best choice. You can’t go headlong into something without a
good defense." Those qualities are the same ones that go into
improving politics and keeping potential felons out of the
BeneCard Services, 168 Franklin Corner Road, Suite 201, Building 2,
Lawrenceville 08648. Douglas R. Forrester, president. 609-219-0400;
fax, 609-219-1788. www.BeneCard.com
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