Inmate, Cellmate, Checkmate!


Inmate, cellmate, checkmate!

June 25, 2007

NEWPORT — When a doctor, a lawyer, a software tester and three other people were buzzed through the heavy metal doors into the Northern State Correctional Facility one day recently, they weren't there to serve sentences.

They were there for the competition — in chess.

In a four-hour tournament recognized by the U.S. Chess Federation, the six civilians and 10 inmates from the prison chess club squared off in an event welcomed by players from outside and in.

"One of the coolest things about this, is to play a rated game around here, I'd have to go to Foxwoods (the Connecticut casino) or Boston," said Bob Sassaman, of Calais, a veteran tournament chess player.

While it's not uncommon for inmates to pass their time playing chess, what makes quality tournament chess in prisons is the influence of players from the outside.

"Whether it's a prison club or regular club, they draw a variety of players. They don't differ much," said Joan Dubois, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee-based U.S. Chess Federation. "They will have their good players and their bad. The problem in a prison is you do not draw in outside people, the pool of players gets stagnant. They really need to play against new blood."

And that's what the tournaments at the Newport prison accomplish.

The prison chess club was formed in January by Bill Storz, a chess buff who teaches at the Northern State branch of the Community High School of Vermont, an education system run by the Vermont Department of Corrections. It held one tournament in April and another on June 15.

"What you get out of it is what you put into it," said Storz, who founded the club as an extracurricular activity for the students. "I help guys pick up on some of the life lessons: ... Thinking through a sequence of events, what are the possible outcomes? If I do this for short-term benefit, without thinking of long term results, what really is the benefit of that?"

Inmate Rick Doner, 32, of Rutland, said he and others play on their own, even when the club isn't meeting on Friday afternoons.

"The competition in here is actually better than I thought it was going to be," said Doner, who is serving 1-to-10 for grand larceny.

The U.S. Chess Federation lists seven affiliated clubs in prisons, from Maryland to Massachusetts. (The Northern State club isn't on the list because it's listed through its connection to the school rather than the prison)

In New Hampshire, inmates at the men's prison in Concord have a chess club, Corrections Department spokesman Jeff Lyons said. They play among themselves, not against outsiders.

At Northern State, games are played in a small room in the school section of the prison, with the only sound coming from clicks when players hit their time clocks.

Some games move quickly and are over within a handful of moves and a few minutes. Others take longer, the pieces staying on the board as each player maneuvers for advantage.

Charles Aronowitz, a retired attorney from Montreal who teaches chess in an elementary school and has played in both of the tournaments at the Newport prison, finished second in April and 12th in the June 15 tournament.

"These guys have improved in only two months," said Aronowitz.

The top-rated player in the event was Newport urologist Armando Lopez, an "expert" under the chess federation's rating system. Not that the rating guaranteed a win; he lost in the title match to Sassaman, a software tester with a "B" rating.

The prison's top-rated player, Al Hennessey, 28, of Burlington, who's serving a 2-to-10-year sentence for burglary, won the first tournament held at the Newport prison, in April. He finished fifth in the most recent one, and he says he looks forward to playing in more.

He says he spends a good deal of his time studying chess strategy.

"I have a lot more time on my hands," he said.


"Al Hennessey, 28, of Burlington, who's serving a 2-to-10-year sentence for burglary, won the first tournament held at the Newport prison"


Rumor has it that all his games were swindles and he stole the title.